6 things I wish they taught me about church meetings

When I went to theological college / seminary we didn’t have any lessons on how to run church meetings. There was no lesson that made clear that our church meetings were for seeking discernment. This is what I wish I  was taught.

  1. It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God

A possible notice for your church bulletin: the Holy Spirit will be leading the Property Committee on Wednesday at 7.30pm to discern the will of God for our congregation.

You don’t hold meetings in the church. Christ calls you into a community of discernment. God is calling you to listen and learn. God calls and gifts people to make decisions – for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Often people turn up at meetings  to pursue their own agenda. A lot of meetings are held just because it’s a certain date on the calendar. Many meetings end with people saying “What was the point of that meeting?!” Wrong, wrong, wrong. You don’t want those kinds of meetings!

Every church meeting is an opportunity to understand what Jesus wants from your community of faith. You are not involved in simple meetings. You are part of God’s unfolding drama of salvation. Church meetings are caught up in the divine purposes of God. Awesome!

  1. God’s will can be known

In your personal walk of faith you can probably tell lots of stories about how you have been led by God. The bedrock assumption of the Gospel is that it is possible to know the will of God. Great. So how do you live that out when you hold meetings in the church?

Apply your conviction that the will of God can be known to the way that you approach church meetings. What difference would it make if you planned and participated in meetings believing that God  makes it possible to have unity with God and to be obedient?

It is not always easy to discern the will of God. For the Christian – whether in private or as part of a group – there is no other game in town. If you are not interested in discerning the will of God for your community why do you even hold any church meetings?

All the barriers that prevent our capacity to faithfully follow God’s way have been overcome. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, you are sustained in relationship with Christ, invited to serve God, and empowered to do so. God will lead you.

  1. Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment

The goal of Christian decision-making is to participate in the hopes and purposes that God has in store for you and your faith community. Therefore your meetings are spiritual exercises. Discernment (making Godly decisions together) is the goal and the purpose of church meetings.

Your church meetings have a spiritual destination – discernment. Spiritual results come from using spiritual resources. Unfortunately there are too many stories around the church about church meetings that look like the worst of political power plays and the serving of self-interest. Let’s not go there! Let’s think about spiritual results from using spiritual practices.

If you want to find God in your meetings then use the tools that God has given you – all the way through the meeting. Prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, deep listening to others, waiting for the Holy Spirit’s leading, confession, forgiveness, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are resources often neglected in church meetings.

You don’t make a cake by using ground beef and gravy. You don’t get discernment unless your meeting includes the spiritual practices that make discernment possible.

  1. Use Christian practices of discernment

If you had a lesson on running a meeting in seminary it probably involved turning up the section of the rule book that talked about moving motions, seconding, points of order, taking a vote, etc. In many churches the rules are based on parliamentary processes, and follow its style of debate and decision making. Robert’s Rules of Order is the classic presentation of this approach.

I know that God can use anyone to serve God’s purposes. The Persian emperor Cyrus comes to mind. But do we really want to put God to the test by continuing to use practices that have zero to do with Christian discernment?

What is Christian about trying to score points at the expense of another person? Where is the Holy Spirit in shutting down a debate by moving that “the motion be put”? How is the body of Christ built up when people’s contribution to discernment is crushed through political maneuvering? If knowledge is power; how is it Christian to keep the knowledge to a few and not share it with everyone? What is honorable, good and right about sowing confusion in order to prevent a motion being passed? How is the body of Christ respected when meeting procedures favor articulate, well educated, aggressive, usually, white men?

There is nothing inherently Christian in Robert’s Rules of Order. The people of God have a wonderful and effective set of resources and processes for discerning God’s will –  and most churches refuse to use them.

  1. What to do when people disagree

Call for the vote. That’s what I learned. So, if it is clear what the majority support just close down the debate. Being pastoral was shown by not letting arguments go on and on. It was considered to be for the best to not get people all riled up with each other.

I don’t see it that way any longer. If knowing the will of God were that easy then everyone would be doing it. It isn’t easy for theological, sociological, capacity and willingness reasons. We will have disagreement until we reach the mind of Christ on an issue. Disagreement – a lack of consensus – is a sign that our journey towards discernment is not over. Instead of being a reason to shut down the discussion, disagreement should be embraced as a place for the possibility of revelation.

Christ only has one mind on an issue. So expect that the Church, the Body of Christ, will come to agreement when it has discerned Christ’s will on a particular topic. Disagreement is the doorway through which insight will be found. Disagreement is not a problem to be fixed but a sign of the promised answer to be welcomed.

When there is disagreement

  • Create a culture of acceptance and safe spaces where people can feel secure in offering a different point of view.
    • Give people a chance to speak about what concerns them and their ideas.
    • Show respect.
    • Listen carefully and ask questions to help your understanding.
    • Be honest with yourself about why you have difficulty accepting another point of view.
    • Pray and seek the Holy Spirit.
    • Take your time – work in God’s time not yours.
    • Don’t rush.
  1. Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

When you are recruiting for your church Board or Committees what are you looking for? Many recruitment processes include a skills matrix so that all the important skills are included in church Committees. This is a very wise thing to do.

When that process has been completed there is no guarantee that you will have the ability to discern God’s will in your group. Without the right character and attitudes in the membership of your church Board you don’t have a community of discernment. You have sets of skills sitting on seats.

Group discernment is impossible if the people in the group do not know how to practice discernment in their own life. Cultivate in your Board members the character of humility. People who know everything cannot be led by the Holy Spirit.

Expect and seek evidence that your group members engage in the practices of personal spiritual discernment – solitude, silence, engaging the Scriptures for spiritual transformation, prayer, growing is self-awareness. A leader who is not able to discern what is going on inside of him/herself cannot discern what is true or false outside of him/her.

Having developed a life habit of seeking the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life you can join with others in this discernment of the Spirit in shared responsibilities.

Six things that I would have liked to learn earlier in my ministry:

  • It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God
    • God’s will can be known
    • Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment
    • Use Christian practices of discernment
    • What to do when people disagree
    • Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

What things have you learned about Christian group discernment? What questions or comments do you have on these approaches? Let’s learn together by hearing your comments.

8 myths about why consensus doesn’t work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post presents eight excuses people make for not using consensus based discernment and offers answers to these objections.

  1. The process takes too much time

Have you ever been in a church meeting where a person thinks they have a license to talk for the sake of hearing their own voice? I have certainly seen a lot time spent talking in traditional church meetings. A consensus building approach honors and seeks all voices. However it also has processes and disciplines that limit the input to make it timely and relevant.

You have been to many meetings where business is determined quickly because it is not complicated or contentious.  It is a red herring to suggest that consensus based discernment can’t move these matters along just as efficiently.

On the other hand we have all been present when contentious or complicated business takes a lot of time. How many times have you been in a long queue at the microphone with many amendments in a parliamentary style of decision-making? Contentious matters always take time. The question is how best to use the time that is available.

In my experience a consensus approach to decision-making can be much faster than the alternatives. It can be faster because:

  • people collaborate to find solutions
  • points of agreement and disagreement can be quickly identified and the effort put into addressing differences
  • changes to the original wording can be agreed upon through less rigid procedures
  • people focus on the issues rather than going off on tangents
  • there is less confusion because people ask all their questions before the deliberation starts.
  1. It all gets too messy

Hands up if you think Robert’s Rules’ claim to be clear, predictable and transparent is a case of false advertising.  I used to be in church meetings that used a parliamentary style of decision-making. All those amendments and foreshadowed amendments, points of order, personal explanations, moving the previous question and so on. Way too messy and confusing!

If you are like me, anything that is unfamiliar seems strange and sometimes out of control. When you first observe a church using consensus-building approaches for discernment you might think it has the look of a free-for-all. However it has an order, customs and practices, techniques, and rules, and they work. Yes, they only work as well as the chairperson of the meeting, but that is true for any business procedure.

  1. Emotions take over, dumbing down the debate

Wow is this is a values-laden objection! I like intellectual rigor, logical argument, and reason as much as anyone. However I have learned to value and affirm other ways of gaining insight. This myth is saying that the only tools that lead to insight and wisdom are in the part of the brain that does all that logical stuff. Is that your experience of life?

Western enthusiasm for reason, logic, and intellectual rigor, and its antipathy to story and emotions as a way of discerning the will of God, owes more to the culture of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason than it owes to the witness of the scriptures. Other cultures value story and feelings very much more than western society. How do you learn?

Acts 15:1-18 shows Peter, Paul, and Barnabas telling stories of the work that God is doing among the Gentiles. They share experiences, reference scripture, and offer reasons – all of which contribute to laying the ground for taking a particular course of action.

John Wesley encouraged Christians to practice discernment in their daily lives. Doing so allows us to align our words and actions, to the best of our ability, to God’s will. His methodology is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  These are four reference points to help us navigate a course for discerning God’s will. The reference points are, as in Acts 15, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

I have had to unlearn a lot of myopic enthusiasm for the intellect as I have learned how to better participate in discerning the will of God. Thank you to all the patient people who have helped me to see that far from being an intrusion, experience – shared through stories and emotions – is indispensable to discerning the will of God.

  1. Consensus is a lowest common denominator decision

When have you seen compromises take place in church meetings? What was involved? Did it feel right to you? Consensus is not another word for “compromise”. Compromise is when people trade off what is important to them so that they can at least get something from a decision.

Compromises sell short the aspiration to be faithful to God’s will in favor of a human political decision. I’ve seen a lot more examples of seeking the lowest common denominator to get a vote passed in a parliamentary process than I have in a discernment process that is grounded in Christian practice. Consensus in Christian discernment is not compromise. Consensus is achieved when a community has prayerfully and carefully sought and discerned Christ’s will for his church.

A decision not to proceed in the way that was originally proposed isn’t a failure in my book. Discernment opens up additional alternatives to “yes” or “no”. Sometimes the way of Christ’s leading is that more time is required for prayer and discussion, more information needs to be gathered, or other groups to be consulted. Taking God’s time to bring a community to an awareness of what faithfulness requires is the highest choice not the lowest.

  1. The Church will lose its prophetic voice

I can find no evidence for this claim. A prophetic statement is not more likely when made in the face of a significant minority that opposes a decision.

God has a people to serve God’s mission – including being prophetic. It is theologically irrefutable that God can bring that group to a shared commitment to that prophetic act. To say otherwise is to deny the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead people.

In a consensus-building approach to discernment there is a principle that the community of faith, prayerfully gathered, and working together is better placed to discern the will of God. When people have this theological understanding I have seen people defer to the wisdom of the whole group and stand aside to allow a decision to be taken. Churches and groups that seek to build consensus create a culture of collaboration that includes expressions of humility. This means that people don’t fight tooth and nail to the bitter end. Instead they willingly support the group even when its view is different to their personal preference. In my experience this makes it more likely that a prophetic decision will be made with a large majority in support.

  1. A small fringe group can veto and prevent action

A consensus approach places a high value on sensitively listening to minority voices. Even so, consensus processes have ways to move forward in the face of people whose resistance is a political strategy of obstructionism rather than a genuinely held belief. The experience of consensus-seeking churches is that this emergency measure is rarely needed. The changed culture of the church makes it less likely that people engage in obstructionist behavior.

  1. Can we trust this process?

Spiritual practices that give rise to the leading of the Holy Spirit can be unnerving for some people. Logical argument doesn’t always seem able to describe what is going on. Trusting the movement of the Holy Spirit in a church group is sometimes harder, it seems, than trusting human wisdom.

Every human process and institution is open to abuse. It is naive to think that some people will not try to use a new discernment process to advance their agenda. I’m sure we have all been around enough to know that human frailty and sin is present in the church. However that is not an excuse to abandon what is otherwise a process clearly grounded in Christian values and practices.

Consensus building churches around the world demonstrate a capacity to hold people accountable for their behavior, and to call people to faithful participation in the process.

  1. There’s nothing wrong with the way we do things

Are you nervous about leaving the traditional method of making decisions? Does the fear of the unknown mean you make allowances for problems with the current business procedures? Are you like someone living in an abusive relationship who doesn’t leave because you keep making excuses for your abuser?

The parliamentary way of doing church business excludes many voices. It privileges others, encourages political manoeuvring, and often leaves people hurt, demoralised and disengaged. What’s wrong with that picture? In consensus building discernment we draw on long standing Christian practices and principles to get where God wants to take us – knowing the will of God for our community of faith.

What objections have you heard to consensus based discernment? What concerns do you have that need to be addressed before you can enter into this faithful way of church life? What answers do you offer to the doubters? We’d love to hear your comments.