Asian Ecumenical Institute Studies Consensus Discernment

The Asian Ecumenical Institute

The Asian Ecumenical Institute involved 25 young Christian leaders. They met for a month in Yangon, Myanmar in September / October 2017. The aims of the Ecumenical Institute include to introduce young leaders to other churches, the issues that these churches face and to how churches can work together.

I delivered lectures as part of the program at the Asian Ecumenical Institute on the “Foundations for Discernment” and “How to run a meeting seeking consensus based discernment”. If people are to understand and work with other churches deep listening, respect, and openness to change is needed. So, the values and practices of consensus building discernment are very valuable in achieving successfully working with other churches.

The participants came from 10 churches across Asia, and were very interested in consensus building principles and tools. They recognise that consensus building practices provide many possibilities to improve the quality of relationships in Churches in Asia. This post provides an opportunity for them to speak for themselves.

What Ecumenical Leaders say about Consensus

The General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was held in Leipzig, Germany in July 2017. The WCRC is an international ecumenical body of Reformed, Uniting / United and Waldensian churches. It meets every 7 years. For the last 20 years it has been on a long journey of developing consensus based practices in its meetings.

Many first time users of consensus discernment were present in Leipzig. There was a lot of positive feedback on the experience. You can here what Martin Engels, Norbet Stephens, and Laslo Gonda have to say by following the links.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts as you learn more about consensus based discernment.

 

Community based decision-making process – 3rd step: deliberation and decision

In any decision-making process deliberation and decision is where most people want to rush. This is the part of the process that most people think about when they talk about making decisions. It is the very heart of a decision-making process.

This is the 3rd post in a series of four posts that walk through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. Step 3 is deliberation and decision. Step 1 is preparation, step 2 is invitation and step 4 is implement the decision.

The material below is expanded upon in the book: “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” in pages 93 – 95 and 186. You can get your copy at Cokesbury or Amazon.

Before the deliberations begin

We are absolutely convinced that when you complete the first 2 steps properly (Preparation and Invitation), then this step is a real delight.

First a reminder. Because this process is community-based, gathering the community for this work is crucial. Therefore people should know the issue(s) in advance and receive all relevant materials before the meeting. They should come to the meeting with a sense of prayer and wonder at what God is about to do through them. Supported this step with deep prayer and reflection. Sadly, some people come to meetings loaded for bear. That is, they take sides in advance and are convinced that they need to argue their point. Winning is their motivation. However, nothing is further from the truth of what community based discernment is about!

Here is a basic outline of an agenda for the deliberation and decision-making part of a discernment process.

Gather the Community

Participants are reminded, affirmed and built up as a community in this part of the meeting. When done well people will:

  • be welcomed
  • share a time of worship or devotion
  • build community
  • set boundaries or guidelines to complete the work ahead
  • review and agree to the agenda with appropriate break times
  • receive an overview of the consensus process.

Information Phase

Most leaders tend to ignore or limit this part of the meeting. Many questions and confusion easily arise when this happens. The issue or topic to be discussed is presented and relevant supporting material distributed.

Often this material takes the form of a petition or proposal to considered. Time must be given to answering questions on the topic so everyone is clear what they are being asked to do, understand the matter before them and the implications of their decision.

An often overlooked important piece of information is what is important to the decision makers as they consider the issue. People decide things on what they think is important. If other people don’t know what matters to others then they will not know where each other are coming from. Worse still, important needs and concerns will not surface. This means that all the issues will not be addressed and the full range of possible outcomes will be cut off.

Deliberation Phase

It is very important that you provide enough time for this phase. This is where creative options surface and the shape of the decision starts to come into focus.

In Robert’s Rules of Order, this is often a time of making amendments and substitution which can be confusing. In a community-based consensus process, it is a time for respectful conversation and consultation with one another to share experiences, hopes, values, feelings, and theology on the proposal. By doing this you begin to see what is acceptable in the proposal and whether there are other ways to achieve goals.

There are many ways to help these sorts of discussions and to capture the developing consensus. One valuable technique to foster these conversations is to form smaller groups of 6-8 people to seek direction.

Determination / Decision Phase

This is the place in the meeting where the decision is made. Perhaps the decision is that it is not time to finalise the issue. So the matter will be referred to a group for further work. That group will then bring back the next phase of the discernment in a new proposal.

Often, a group decides they have had enough conversation and are ready to share alternate ideas gleaned from conversation and prayer in the Deliberation Phase.  If you have completed the previous phases with integrity, there may be a clear cut sense of direction. This is the point where leaders ask the group if they are ready to make a decision. A revised petition or proposal may be presented to the entire group from feedback in small group sessions, or through other strategies.  Remember the point is to draw from the wisdom of the community.

Ultimately it is time to make the decision. This can be done with a show of hands, ballots, or other means. Once the decision is made it should be documented so anyone not present at the meeting understands what has happened and what the next steps will be.

Conclusion

Close the meeting by thanking people for their participation and hard work. Where appropriate end the meeting with an acknowledgement of what the group has worked on and been through. This may be a time for a prayer or song.

I am deeply troubled when a group says that this work takes too much time. They prefer a simple yes or no vote. The answer is simple: take just enough time to discern the will of God on a matter with your brothers and sisters. Then people have ownership of the decision. You will know that you have spent time wisely when you hear people say that they fully understand the decision and are prepared to support it.

If you do not take adequate time for this step then you will waste time later revisiting the matter, or suffering from people’s confusion or lack of support. Groups have split over less!

What a wonderful feeling it is when a faith community knows that they have discerned the will of God on the matter and are prepared to embrace it together!

Post your response to this article so that we may hear your experience and insights about making decisions well.

 

 

 

Drafting Groups – devil or angel?

Drafting Groups are the most contentious part of a consensus building approach to discernment. Sending proposals to small groups where members discuss them is a strategy that can be used for complex business. These discernment groups have a facilitator who works through a well prepared process. Their views, along with recommendations for changes and new ideas, are sent to a drafting group.  The role of the drafting group is to bring all the ideas together.

Devils or Angels?

The most frequent objection to this process is that drafting groups have a lot of power. Cynics say that this small group can impose its views on the meeting and manipulate the process to achieve what it wants. The members of Drafting Groups are sometimes accused of being self serving and manipulative.

Drafting (sometimes called Facilitation) Groups take the information that has been provided through a small group discussion process. After attending to all the input they re present the views that have come to them. They do this by writing a report that is presented back to the meeting in a plenary session. The report explains what was reported to them, what they did with the information and why they made the decisions that they did. Drafting Groups help the members to have their say and to influence the final outcome of the discussion. If this group did not exist then the small group time would just be a lot of hot air.

Why you can have confidence in Drafting Groups

  • People are appointed who are known to be fair, trustworthy and true servant leaders
  • Members are not chosen to represent interest groups but because of their skills and maturity
  • Response sheets that are used in Discernment Groups are prepared by an experienced leader and are in a standard format
  • Reports from the Drafting Group explain every step of its work and the reasons for any new proposals that they bring
  • Members can ask questions of the report and have to receive it
  • If the new proposals do not reflect the developing consensus in the meeting then there will be significant push back
  • The Drafting Group makes no decisions but seeks to support the discernment of the members of the meeting

Trust is an important part of any meeting process. Appointing the right people and using tried and tested reporting formats means that members can have great trust in Drafting Groups.

Rev Norbet Stephens was Chairperson of the Drafting Group at the recent General Council meeting of the WCRC. He acknowledges that it is a challenging process, but with a skilled team it is possible to produce proposals that move forward the process of discernment. Hear Norbet in his own words.

The story of a first time Discernment Group facilitator

Consensus discernment processes have many parts. Discernment Groups are one very important strategy for discernment. However groups need leaders – facilitators.

The WCRC, an international ecumenical gathering meets every seven years. About 1,000 delegates attend from over 350 churches. They come from diverse church and social cultures. The meetings operate in four official and two other languages.  To run its Discernment Groups the meeting used 18 facilitators.

First time users of consensus discernment

This is the second post where we share with you the experiences of some people who were in Leipzig. Many participants who are sharing in these blogs experienced consensus discernment for the first time. We trust that they will be an encouragement to you. They speak about the value of, and possibilities for, consensus discernment. We hope that you will share their stories widely.

Rev Dr Gonda is Associate Professor in Missiology and Ecumenical Studies at Debrecen Reformed Theological University.  The General Council meeting held six sessions for Discernment Groups. Laszlo, a first time facilitator for this methodology, led one of these groups for their six sessions.

His reflections include that this methodology

  • helps the church to be true to its character
  • encourages us to listen to each other but also to listen for what the Spirit is saying to the churches through one another
  • avoids the trap of winners and losers
  • allows Christians to express what it believes about the church – we are one
  • encourages Christ like behavior

I invite you to spend a couple of minutes listening to Laszlo share about his experience in his own words.

Rev Dr Laszlo Gonda

Satisfied with How Your Church Makes Decisions?

How do you like to make decisions?

Imagine that you are in a church meeting facing a very important decision.  Got one in mind?  Perhaps you are considering adding staff, starting a new ministry, or even leaving the denomination.

Would you rather:

  1. Be personally involved in making the decision? OR Let a few key leaders decide the matter for you?
  2. Have a detailed, written proposal on the issue with clear consequences? OR Trust that details will get worked out later by someone?
  3. Have time to ask questions and talk with others to shape the best decision? OR Prefer to have a straight up and down vote and get it over with?
  4. Like to know the timetable to implement the decision and how the decision will impact others? OR “Wing it” and figure it out later?
  5. Take time to discern the will of God for your faith community? OR Finish the business meeting quickly and end the angst?

What are the options?

Did you answer “yes” the majority of the first choices? If so, the odds are high that you are not satisfied with a parliamentary style of making decisions. Unfortunately, that’s the only method most churches use to make decisions. Yet most people long for a better way. There is one!

A parliamentary style of making decisions comes from government processes. It was never designed to reflect the interests and practices of a faith community. Therefore, it does not immerse itself in the ‘means of grace’ like prayer, study and conferencing. It is a business model that tends to focus on the inital proposal brought before a group.

Problems with a parliamentary way of business

This approach:

  • limits information to 3 “speeches” for and against a motion
  • over simplifies issues by creating an artificial binary choice between “yes” and “no”
  • creates winners and losers by forcing the majority view on the minority
  • can be confusing when people try to amend or substitute motions
  • usually does not spend time in study, or small groups interaction
  • is not concerned about implementing the decision – just making it

Yes, this process can work when the situation warrants a simple, quick decision like the paint color in the Fellowship Hall, but it is not highly participatory or engaging except for the final vote. However, on important issues it is less than effective and can actually cause harm.

Benefits of a consensus approach

A consensus-based approach to making decisions is designed especially for a faith community. So it includes prayer, study and discussion. Also it is respectful of different viewpoints and considers creative options.

Further, it:

  • can involve the entire community and hear diverse viewpoints
  • lessens conflict by sharing information and practicing respectful listening
  • surfaces creative options for consideration and seeks common ground before a vote
  • “perfects” a proposal so it speaks for the whole community
  • allows people to ask questions and get clarification on complex matters
  • moves naturally to a decision point when people have felt heard

To learn more about the differences between a parliamentary model of making decisions and a faith-based model, I invite you to read our book:  The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.  It details a consensus-based approach to use when making decisions.

I encourage you to move toward a consensus-based model to strengthen your faith community. This approach will allow it to deal well with hard challenges. Be the faith community God intends you to be.  Live out of your values. Use a decision-making process that expresses the Christian values of attending to God, respecting the people Christ has called into a community of discernment, is Spirit led and leads to discernment.

Leave your comments below to let us know what process you use to make decisions and how well it is working for you.  We welcome your feedback!