What is a consensus approach to discernment?

What is consensus?

I’ve just spent a few minutes doing a search for quotes on consensus. Wow!!!! The quotes I found show that people have a lot of ideas on what is “consensus”. Apparently if I believe seeking consensus is important I might be a traitor, turn great ideas into mundane ideas, abandon all principles and beliefs, be a scam merchant and lacking in leadership. Clearly I need to say something about “consensus”!

The first thing to say is do not confuse consensus with compromise. Consensus is a perspective, an understanding, reached by a group. The Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) call it “the mind of the meeting”.

Compromise always has a focus on getting what I want. Compromise trades off some of my interests to get some others interests met in return. In contrast consensus seeks the interests of the organization, the cause, the whole – not the interests of the individual decision makers. Through a search for consensus people find words that can all say what all deeply believe.

The convergence texts that have come out of the World Council of Churches and other international church bodies on key theological positions are examples of this. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church have not compromised their positions on justification. However it has been possible for them to sign a significant convergence document on justification just a few years ago.

Of course there will be times in consensus building when our preferred words, emphases or priorities are set aside. However we do not put them aside to gain something for ourselves. We put aside personal preferences in the interests of the group as a whole, and the common cause that the members share.

Leadership and consensus

Martin Luther King Jnr observed: “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” I take this to mean that consensus is an outcome that results from a process. A good leader provides a process through which it is possible for a group to fashion a common mind on the subject at hand.

From a theological perspective consensus – a common mind – is always possible when we seek the will of God. We know how rare that seems. Yet to abandon seeking consensus denies that it is possible to know God’s will.

A consensus building approach is a set of processes and tools that may be used by a leader. They will, as Martin Luther King Jnr said, allow you to be a “molder of consensus.”

What’s the point of consensus?

Consensus building is not an end. It is a process that makes it possible for a group to reach high levels of agreement on things that matter to them. It does this by being

  • Biblically based
  • theologically sound
  • sociologically relevant
  • culturally appropriate
  • faith-encouraging

The end point of consensus building is not to get agreement for its own sake. A genuine experience of consensus gives confidence that a community is in tune with what God wants as a decision. The end point of consensus is not agreement – it is discernment.

Discernment is a spiritual experience. Therefore discernment means that you recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life. You recognise God is present.

So, when consensus building takes place in the church it is a journey in community towards experiencing the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit.

Have you had experiences of the Holy Spirit’s leading in your community? We would be greatly encouraged if you share when you have discerned the leading of the Holy Spirit. Please add a comment.

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Author: Terence

I am a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. My current ministries focus on consultancy and teaching about consensus based decision-making, mediation, governance training and professional supervision for Ministers. I am co-author of the book “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together”. I live on the beautiful Far South Coast of NSW from where I undertake ministry across the globe. Contact me at terence@makingchurchdecisions.com

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