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!

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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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