Community based decision-making process – 1st step: Preparation

Be prepared for anything

A sound decision-making process needs good preparation. So put in place the steps to be effective. This series of four posts walks you through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. The first step is preparation. Step 2 is invitation. Step 3 is deliberation and decision.The final step 4 is to implement the decision.

How you begin the work of making decisions affects how you complete it. Preparation is the crucial first step. “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 86 – 92; and the Checklist on page 184. You can get your copy from Cokesbury or Amazon.

Preparation

In this step of the process focus on organisation. Therefore give attention to the following elements. Then you will cover all the important parts of this phase. Overlooking any of the following six steps can lead to significant negative consequences. Do not underestimate the value of good preparation!

  1. Name the decision to be made

    People need to know what is being asked of them. So put clearly into words the issue, and the form of the proposal. This clarifies what is being considered. Then people can pray and think wisely about the issue.

    Provide information about the possible decision (i.e. the proposal). Also include how and when the decision will be made. People in an organisation are more likely to accept a decision if there is transparency. People need to understand and trust the process or they will want to go over the issue again and again. So tell them the process!

    You have told people the issue / proposal being considered. They know when it will be considered ,and the process that will be used to come to a decision. In addition people need to know who is making the decision. In a local church context this may seem obvious. However when a decision is contentious it is well worth reminding the wider group who has been trusted to lead in this area of decision-making. This is a way of building confidence and trust. If there is an external facilitator involved it is important to share, widely, who they are and why they have been selected.

    The first stage of preparation is to let the decision makers, and those affected by the decision, know what is happening. Be as clear as you can.

  2.  Design the Process

    Consider forming a Process Planning Group to assist in this task. This group will take the leadership (perhaps the responsibility) for designing an effective process. Their role is to draw a road map for the journey towards discernment. On this map will be:

    + Communication strategies for the community affected by the decision.

    + Communication strategies for the decision makers.

    + A process for use within the meeting. It will cover information sharing, ways to explore an issue, strategizing about how to include all voices and how to generate creative options to resolve the matter, etc.

    + The timeline for making a decision – it doesn’t all have to be in one meeting!

  3. Fill key leadership roles

    Name the meeting chair (this is often a person already elected). If you decide to have small group discussion as a part of the process, design the groups and ensure they are inclusive. Recruit small group leaders and schedule as many training sessions as required to make them ready. When making decisions on matters that have a profound impact on your organisation we recommend that you utilize a trained facilitator to guide the process.

  4. Support the entire process with prayer and other spiritual practices

    Don’t forget to call a season of prayer, and if appropriate, fasting for the entire process. If there are Bible passages that people can helpfully study and meditate on, make these known. Immerse your community in the process. Provide knowledge about what is happening. It is nothing less than discerning the will of Christ for His church on this issue, in this place, at this time. This is a spiritual undertaking.

  5. Set Meeting Guidelines

    Be clear about who can participate in the process. Also be able to say what they need to know in order to participate. Now is the time to list respectful ways to work together (listen deeply, ask clarifying questions, be in a spirit of prayer, etc). If you don’t have a Behavioral Covenant now may be a good time to make one. Make these guidelines known well ahead of time.

  6. Provide a safe environment to meet

The location of the meeting matters. The space you choose should allow for people to clearly see and hear each other. We recommend setting the room up in a circular pattern to promote a sense of community. If necessary have a sound system. Think about hospitality and comfort – respect and care for the people who are making the decision.

If you do not already have one, consider establishing a behavioral covenant to guide respectful interactions with people. If you have one ensure that it is before people and they commit to following it.

Do not assume that people know to communicate well with one another. Encourage people to listen before speaking, to ask clarifying questions so they understand what is said, not to monopolize the conversation, etc.

Conclusion

If you take  time to prepare your decision-making process, you will lay the groundwork for a good experience and make better decisions. The goal of your preparation is to give people confidence in the process and therefore to be better able to accept the outcome.

 

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 forgotten history of consensus decision-making

 

 The old saying is “there is nothing new under the sun”. This is true for consensus decision-making. Consensus decision-making involves either the process of growing agreement across a group, or unanimity. So dominant is the majority rules approach that its forgotten that consensus decision-making is far older than what passes for democracy.

In this post we dive into but a few pages of the forgotten history of consensus.

Indigenous communities

A great number of examples can be provided. Please share some that you know in the comments section at the end of the post.

The example I share is the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as the Iroquois League) in north-east America. It is made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Their decision-making required consensus (unanimity). So they undertook processes in their meetings that included hearing every voice and ensuring that all points of view were taken seriously.

This confederacy existed for centuries before the Europeans arrived. You can read more about them here.

Traders and Merchants

The Hanseatic League was “an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds. The League dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland from the Late Middle Ages (c. 13th–17th centuries).” Wikipedia

The Hanseatic League never required unanimity for action. Those parties that felt a need to do something consulted each other and upon reaching consensus, proceeded to act. Those who remained outside the consensus disassociated themselves from it. Often Hanseatic communications would list those cities that exempted or disassociated themselves from a decision.

Another bunch of “traders” who used consensus were pirates. They routinely agreed on the constitutions and terms of the voyage on which they would embark. They also made many decisions collaboratively, including the appointment of their captain. You can read more about both of these groups in an interesting article from the Rhizome Network.

Religious Groups

Probably the best known of religious groups that make decisions by consensus is the Religious Society of Friends . The Quakers are not comfortable with the term consensus. For them it carries too much of the sense of human agreement. Quakers prefer to talk about discerning the “mind of the meeting”. Nevertheless for over 300 years they have engaged in practices that facilitate coming to a unanimous view on the business. For a more detailed presentation on the Quaker approach you can read Eden Grace’s article on Quaker business procedures.

Wesley and Methodism more widely, did not have a tradition of consensus-based discernment. This is perhaps not surprising. For example Wesley’s opposition to women preaching arose as much from being a child of his times as from Biblical reflection. The emerging parliamentary style of decision-making was the context in which his meetings were established.

Wesley considered that Christians should meet together in order to become more mature in their faith. As Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies, Candler School of Theology – Emory University, notes: “Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness … it was focused on the details of individual people’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness …”. Wesley’s understanding of Christian Conferencing needs to be located within his concept of sanctification. This is the movement of a person to personal and social holiness. So Christian Conferencing expected that people would move towards a common mind on God’s will for their lives and community.

Far from being a novelty, consensus building and making decisions by consensus is widespread in history. What is clear is that it is most effective in voluntary associations and / or where members have strongly shared values. That makes it sound like it should be really useful in the church!

Say what!! Fish do Consensus !?!

 

Sometimes I get told that consensus decision-making is a fad. I’m told it is based on the postmodern fallacy that there is no such thing as truth. Therefore, it is said, everyone’s opinion is as good as that of the next person. So consensus approaches supposedly just shake around this ignorance until it settles at the lowest common denominator.

Tell me about the fish!

Fish don’t know about post modernism but they do consensus decision-making. In a fascinating study reported in Current Biology Volume 18, Issue 22, p1773–1777, 25 November 2008 David Sumpter, Jens Krause, et al report on their study about fish. The fish they studied are shown to engage in a series of interactions and observations, which lead them to all take on the same course of action. Following the direction of the majority is the result of sharing information that was not known to all the individuals. Yet when it is brought together it makes sense to follow.

Consensus in Nature

There are many examples in the animal kingdom where consensus makes sense and is seen in the practice of animals.

David Sumpter and Stephen Pratt in Quorum responses and consensus decision-making; published 27 March 2009 in Royal Society Publishing observe that for many social insects, the survival of the colony depends on them remaining together and making a good decision about where to live.

For example honeybee emigration. After settling in a densely-packed swarm several hundred scout bees fly out to search for a new home. Successful scouts use the waggle dance to recruit fellow scouts to the sites they have found. Recruited bees may in turn dance for a site, creating a positive feedback loop that drives up the population of scouts visiting a site. Bees tune their dancing to the quality of the site they are advertising. Hence better sites enjoy more effective recruitment and faster population growth. Scouts periodically return to the site they are advertising and somehow assess its population. Once this exceeds a threshold value, or quorum, they return to the swarm to perform a behaviour called piping.

This process unfolds over one to several days. During this time a large number of sites are found and advertized by at least a few bees. Usually, only one site reaches quorum and induces swarm lift off. Rare split decisions have been observed. Then bees engage in an aerial tug-of-war as rival groups of scouts attempt to lead the swarm in different directions. In these cases, the bees are forced to re-settle and begin the process again.

Why consensus matters

In their article Consensus decision making in animals reported in Cell, Larissa Conradt and Timothy Roper observe that in social species many critical decisions need to be made jointly because the group will split apart unless a consensus is reached.

They look at:

  • conflict of interest between group members
  • whether they involve either local or global communication
  • different categories of consensus decision
  • who makes the decision
  • what are the underlying mechanisms
  • what are the functional consequences.

They conclude

  • consensus decision-making is common in non-human animals
  • cooperation between group members in the decision-making process is likely to be the norm
  • this is so even when the decision involves significant conflict of interest.

All the researchers acknowledge that group actions occasionally lead to incorrect decisions. However the studies show that decisions reached through consensus are often more accurate, enhance information exchange, and on average allow greater accuracy than do complete independence or weak responses to the behaviour of others.

Consensus is natural and good

Consensus building is not a fad. Deeply implanted in creation is a sense of community, and acknowledgement that we need each other. Perhaps it is the pride of Adam that keeps people wanting to play God and not work in community (which ironically is the opposite of what God does). Clearly the animal kingdom doesn’t seem to have this fault.

Consensus building is effective, efficient, natural, and the most common way decisions are made on the planet. Humans are the odd one’s out and the influence of Western individualism has only made it worse. It is time to get back to our roots and work together.

5 questions to ask when thinking about moving to consensus based discernment

 

 

Making big changes requires planning. One way to develop a plan is to ask some basic questions around what you are thinking of doing. If you are thinking of moving your local church Board, congregation, or committee to consensus based discernment then I expect that you have a lot of questions. Be sure to leave your questions at the end of this post. We would love to have a chance to respond to them

Exactly what questions you have will be affected by your context and how far along you are towards abandoning the failed parliamentary style of decision-making. Most people will have a lot more than 5 questions. But let’s make a start with 5. I suggest that you begin by thinking of your questions in terms of what, who, when, where, how.

What do I want to achieve?

Are you clear on your goals for making the change? If you do not have a compelling, motivating narrative to share with others then you will struggle to bring people along with you. So before you answer the “what” question think and read about the benefits of a consensus based discernment process. Then focus on the spiritual outcomes and Christian character of this discernment process. But hey, it’s your story. I’d love to hear what your motivations are at the end of post.

Who will I work with to bring change?

You are not alone in your desire for change. Identify the people around you who have a similar yearning for a more authentically Christian, respectful, inclusive, culturally relevant, effective and efficient process for your church meetings. Talk to them about your hopes. Listen to theirs. Encourage and build each other up Work as part of a team for change. Going out on your own may be necessary in some situations but it isn’t Plan A.

This journey may be new to you but there are leaders from all around the world who have been on this path before you. This website, its blogs, our training events, our Facebook page (@makingchurchdecisions) are among the places where these leaders meet, support and share experiences and ideas. Reach out to people through these avenues and be part of our community of learning and encouragement. Post a request or question at the end of this blog.

When will I make a start?

Start when you have done your homework and the Spirit leads you. Know why you are proposing a change. Gather around you a local team who share your vision. Develop your knowledge so that you can articulate and implement an alternative process.

But don’t wait until you know everything that there is to know before venturing into using the principles and tools of consensus building discernment. Once you understand the core principles then it is possible to design a meeting process that uses them. The techniques vary a little in their complexity depending on the size and type of group but mostly they are quite simple. Any local church Committee, Board or congregational meeting can use consensus building techniques – so give it a go as soon as you can.

Where will I try consensus building discernment?

Lead where you have the opportunity to lead. Some of you will be leading in small groups and others in regional, state wide or national contexts. God has called you into leadership in that place so that’s where you can change to a more healthy, life giving discernment process.

Mostly I recommend that people walk before they run. Whatever the size and complexity of your context there will be places that are more simple and easier to change. So you might build up your experience in Committees or Boards. If you lead Districts or Presbyteries you don’t have to run the whole meeting using a new process the first time that you introduce it. Just use a different process for one or two pieces of business.

A consensus building approach to discernment can be accommodated in any church’s polity or system of government. Just use the process to build as much consensus as possible and when necessary shift to the conventional way of making the decision. You can use consensus building discernment in your setting.

How will I do it?

Prayerfully, carefully, respectfully develop a vision for what is possible, identify others whom the Holy Spirit is leading and work with them. Then make some suggestions about how your meetings might be run differently.

Sometimes the challenge is how to get a conversation for change on to the agenda of a group. Several easy ways to start a conversation include:

  •     hold a leader’s retreat on the spiritual practice of group discernment
    • in your annual Board review of its performance as a Board include questions about which meeting processes people feel good about or not, and why
    • devotions at a meeting could look at texts like 1 Corinthians 12: 4-7 and members asked what the implications are for their meeting practice
    • write a case study on a meeting that went particularly badly and unpack why it was so and explore what other options would have led to a better result
    • Do you have any other ideas – please share them at the end of the post.

Five questions

Just fill in the blanks by answering these questions.

What do I want to achieve?

Who can I work with?

When will I make a start?

Where will I try out my new ideas?

How will I go about bringing in change?

Ask your questions at the end of the post and they may lead to a future blog topic.