Culture and Consensus – an African story

Culture can be a significant factor in whether or not consensus building can be effective. Some cultures support community developed and own decisions. Others favour individuals and the exercise of power by a minority over the majority. In this post we have an honest interview with Rev Dr Paul Mpongo from the Presbyterian Church in Congo.

TC:       Paul please tell us about your role in the church.

PM:      I am Deputy Legal Representative of the Presbyterian Church in Congo living in Kinshasa. I am also pastoring a small church congregation and teaching as Professor of Ethics and Theology in three universities.

TC:       What are some of the particular challenges that face the country and church in the Congo?

PM:      The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a long and continuing history of civil war. Pervasive poverty means that 80% of its primary and secondary school buildings are in a very needy state. Poverty also prevents schools from providing books, desks, teacher training, equipment like chalkboards and scholarships for girls and orphans. Congo, currently ranks near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. This is a measure of life expectancy, education and income per capita. Life is very difficult for many people and the churches try their best to improve the lives of people through education and health services.

TC:      You responded by email to me after a post about having the courage to move away from power to relationships. How do you see power operating in the churches in Africa?

PM:      Conflict in the African church is coming from the need for power, the love of money and tribalism. Power is the way that people get money, the way that they control things to get what they want.

In Africa tribal loyalties and hierarchy is very strong so people who have high standing expect power as their right. It goes against the dominant culture in tribal societies to give up power.

TC:       What other factors in Africa encourage people to cling to power?

MP:      Everyone wants to be bishop and a small god.

In Africa it is complicated to do consensus because democracy is not strong . Democracy does not have deep roots in Africa. Also much of the teaching that has been received, including in the churches, has emphasised the idea of strong leadership.

TC:       In a culture where there are many injustices, and power is the way of the world and the church, it must be very hard to talk about building consensus.

MP:      Many people in Africa – whether educated or illiterate – take over majority strategy as the way to deal with injustices and tribalism. This is what they know from their life experience. This is normal in our society. If people have power they get what they want. If they do not have power they often suffer.

Consensus has a great problem to fit with this mind. It is not a familiar idea in our culture.

TC:       Is change possible in the African context?

PM:      It is hard in Africa to come up to this mind.

We need more understanding from the perspective of God’s love than human rights and cultures. In the church we know that God’s ways are not like human ways. We need to look in the Scriptures and the witness of the early church to find encouragement and models for how to live without the power relationships of our human culture.

Church policy of consensus needs love and binding to others as members in the body of Christ. If we see each other as one body, serving the one cause of Jesus Christ we might change. Love and concern for all is the key.

TC:       Is it possible in Africa that people will give up power in favour of relationships?

PM:      The power of Jesus’ Spirit is strong and powerful to overcome our human limits.

We need courage to love each other and to accept each other. God calls us to love each other. We need to give this the highest priority. Exercising power over people must not be the first thing in our relationships in the church.

TC:       It sounds like it is very hard in the African church to deal with power.

PM:      Yes it is. But we must have the courage to be of a strong faith – which cannot go back and never fail because of hardship.

The courage required can also mean that the leader must have the will to leave the leadership post – even if people do not like you to quit.

TC:       Paul, do you have hope that relationships can take priority over the exercise of power in the churches in Africa?

MP:      I believe with the heart of love and humility, everything will be fine
in our churches.

A very special thanks to Dr Mpongo who has generously contacted me many times about our posts on this website. I encourage everyone to offer comments in the comments section at the end of every post.

My 5 Consensus New Year Resolutions

 

It is late January and many New Year resolutions will have fallen by the wayside. The good news in this post is that you get 5 consensus New Year resolutions. Change is possible. So if you don’t achieve one you still many more!!

There is an old saying “If you aim at nothing then you are sure to hit it!” If you don’t try for changing the culture of your church then you are sure to end up with the same culture as you arrive at 2019. There are some simple mindsets and actions that you can take NOW that will give your church a chance to move towards valuing consensus based discernment. So here are some suggested resolutions. I am sure you can add some more of your own.

Consensus 101 – bell the cat

Name the problems you see in meetings. Once named it is easier to see them every time.

  • When you see people shut out of contributing – insist that they are heard
  • If people get hurt by your meeting processes care for them and challenge the meeting planners to do better
  • When decisions are resisted or get revisited time and again ask why it happens
  • When there is confusion during debates ask what can be done to help people understand the issues and the motion  (hint – questions for clarification)
  • When people don’t behave like Christians should behave tell them that it isn’t good enough and our discipleship should also be shown in meetings

Talk to people about consensus discernment

You know stuff that a lot of people in your church have never heard about. Consensus based discernment is the future but it is not the present for many congregations.

People often put up with things because they don’t know that there are alternatives. Encourage people – especially the hurt, marginalised, spiritual, hopeful, despondent people – and yes leaders who long for a better way. Share the resources that you have. Respond to their questions. Challenge them to hope and imagination.

Continue to learn about consensus discernment

Read the posts from this site. If you haven’t done it yet buy our  book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together. Read other books from secular  and religious authors that talk about consensus building and decision-making. Some examples are: Mark Gerzon The Reunited States of America and Ruth Haley Barton Pursuing God’s Will Together.

Buy the Making Church Decisions course. Five modules with four or five lessons in each module that are full of insights and practical usable tips plus many resources that are not in the book. The course will be available late February. Sign up for the posts or follow on FaceBook to be sure that you hear about it and get a chance to grab the heavily discounted launch special!

Organise seminars and workshops in your local church or district. Julia and I are very keen to meet you in person and to have the chance to explore in depth the ideas and resources that we have. What better way to get access to one or both of us to coach and mentor you around the specific situations that you face!

Start or join on line discussions. We would love more comments on our FaceBook posts (@makingchurchdecisions.com) or on these posts. We want to encourage a community of learning. Lead the discussion or join in when you can.

Build group cohesion and find common goals

People gathered together in groups can have a wide range of aims when they come together. Unless these aims are aligned in some way then building consensus is not possible. It is no accident that the effective examples of consensus based discernment or decision-making are seen in groups that have a shared goal.

Goals need to be aligned at a very high level – the detail is not as important as the highest shared value(s). Examples of high-level goals include making a commercial profit, maintaining peace and stability in a community, seeking to do the will of God, community action groups seeking change in their community. If the focus is too much on lower level objectives then the divergence between participants magnifies.

Identify and agree about the high level goals.  People will support and strive to achieve these. This is an essential prerequisite foundation for building consensus. These goals or objectives may be served by a wide variety of strategies. The individual ideas about the way to achieve the goal become less important than the end point. As a result people can change from their initial ideas, or can accommodate more than one approach. If people see alternatives as a better way to support the main / common goal then they will accept them.

Encourage and build diversity in your meetings

When a group is very homogeneous in character, and attitudes among group members are too similar, it works against consensus. In such cases it is very difficult to generate new ideas that lead to the best decisions.

The best way to reduce the risk of this “group think” is to get a whole lot of different people in the room. Businesses recognise the importance of cultural, gender, age and experience diversity on their Boards. Diverse Boards generate more ideas and make better decisions. The same goes for the church.

So start thinking about your local church council or board and whether it is diverse enough. If it isn’t diverse start encouraging a range of different people to become members.

Conclusion

The start of a new year is a great time to think about doing things differently! Here are 5 things that you can do now that will help you to develop an openness and culture where consensus based discernment can take root and flourish. Hopefully you can add some more.

We would love to hear from you about the goals you have set for yourself this year and how they go. You can use the comments option on this post or start a conversation on FaceBook @makingchurchdecision.com

1000 people tried consensus – how did it go?

WCRC General Council Logo 2017

The World Communion of Reformed Churches took a huge risk by using consensus as their way of discernment and decision-making. Around a 1,000 people met as the General Council in Leipzig June / July 2017 and consensus was new to the vast majority. How did it go?

What the Participants said

Martin Engles

Amy Eckert wrote a comprehensive article on the process, its goals and values. In it she interviewed a number of participants. Here are some of their observations.

Within the small groups the real work of discernment takes place. “Discernment truly is more about listening than speaking,” said Gradye Parsons. “It is important to listen to what others are saying. It is important to listen to what God is saying. And it’s important to consider your own thoughts with regard to the issue and in light of what you have heard.”

Rev. Lucy Wambui Waweru, minister of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa serving the Nyeri Church in central Kenya, values very much the input that ordinary delegates have on the process within the small groups.

“Discernment Groups include voices from around the world,” she said. “The groups also have a mix of older, more seasoned ecumenists as well as younger delegates. And every voice is heard.”

What is different?

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

Waweru agreed. She also appreciated that giving consensus did not mean that a delegate was 100% supportive or opposed to a proposal. Nor did it mean that the delegate envisioned a clear path toward adoption of the new proposal.

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

If you were at the General Council of WCRC we would love to hear your comments. Also any questions are very welcome.

You can read the whole article on the WCRC website.

Five foundations for consensus

Foundations matter. With these five foundations you will be able to build a solid process for consensus based decision-making.

A common goal

People gathered together in groups can have a wide range of aims when they come together. Unless these aims are aligned in some way then building consensus is not possible. It is no accident that the effective examples of consensus based discernment or decision-making are seen in groups that have a shared goal (web link to historic egs post).

Goals need to be aligned at a very high level – the detail is not as important as the highest shared value(s). Examples of high-level goals include making a commercial profit, maintaining peace and stability in a community, seeking to do the will of God, community action groups seeking change in their community. If the focus is too much on lower level objectives then the divergence between participants magnifies.

Identify and agreement about the high level goals.  People will support and strive to achieve these. This is an essential prerequisite foundation for building consensus. These goals or objectives may be served by a wide variety of strategies. The individual ideas about the way to achieve the goal become less important than the end point. As a result people can change from their initial ideas, or can accommodate more than one approach. If people see alternatives as a better way to support the main / common goal then they will accept them.

In The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together  we make the point that it is crucial to ensure that everyone agrees about the purpose of the meeting. For churches the fundamental priority for meetings is to discern the will of Christ for his church in this place and time. With this goal people can exhibit great openness to new insights, people changing positions and a growing consensus be developed. But don’t just assume that everyone is pulling in the same direction!

Commitment to reach consensus

Consensus building is a journey. The end point of that journey is discernment. You can’t abduct people and take them on this trip! People have to take it on voluntarily. This is the second of the foundations – people want to be part of the process.

Everyone must be willing to really try. Participants in the process need:

  • honesty about what it is they want or don’t want
  • genuine listening to what others have to say
  • humility so they can receive the wisdom of others and be prepared to change their position
  • patience – take the time to understand and to explain oneself
  • trust and openness – including that people will not seek to abuse the process

The Setting

How people are arranged in a meeting and how they “gather” are critical foundations for the success of a discernment process. Use a space that is hospitable and welcoming. If possible have refreshments and comfortable chairs. Arrange the room so that people look at each other face to face and not at the back of someone’s head.

Make sure that you spend time gathering and building the community. This can include prayer, a time with Scripture and “reconnecting as a community”. People come with all sorts of things on their mind. So time needs to be spent acknowledging each other, supporting members and reminding ourselves why we are there.

Take time

Don’t rush! If the process of consensus building takes longer than expected it rarely matters. Most business can be deferred if a final position has not been reached. Rushing the introduction of material, the listening to one another and the generation of options, undermines the process of building consensus. Some journeys are quick and others take longer. That’s OK – reaching the destination in good shape is the important thing.

Good facilitation

If your group is inexperienced in consensus building then your leaders may not have knowledge of all the steps in the process. There may be tools that can be used to build consensus that they don’t know. Training is available through resources like this website, trainers  in consensus building, and The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

However when your group is particularly large or the issues are quite complex give serious thought to using an external facilitator. Facilitators bring external expertise that support your leaders, make the process go smoothly, produce resources for use in the meeting, and ensure that all the important parts of the process get covered.

All of these conditions can be grown in your group over time. You don’t have to have everything perfect before you start on the consensus building road for decision-making. However like all wise travellers – you will want to know that you have the key requirements for the trip packed with you: a common goal, commitment, the setting and the time needed, and good facilitation. Are there any other “must haves” for this trip to discernment that you can share with us in the comments section?

 

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.