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.

 

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.