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.

 

Fruit of the Spirit Supports Consensus

Consensus and Choices

Consensus is hard work – it demands that we make choices as a faith community.  Yogi Bera, the Baseball Commissioner in the US, once jokingly said:  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  As ridiculous as it sounds, churches often make the mistake of merging opposing choices to try and keep the peace.  This rarely satisfies anyone. Moreover, this approach can actually cause frustration that results in fights and uncivil behavior.

Galatians 5: Fruit of the Spirit

Paul understood that they way people treat one another often places them in a position to make good or bad decisions.  Think back to the last major decisions you faced.  Was it a good experience?  How did people treat one another during the process?

“But what happens when we live God’s way?  He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others (love), exuberance about life (joy), serenity (peace).  We develop a willingness to stick with things (forbearance), a sense of compassion of the heart (kindness), and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people (goodness).  We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments (faithfulness), not needing to force our way in life (gentleness), able to marshal and direct our energies wisely (self-control).        [The Message and NIV versions]

These are often called the Fruit of the Spirit.  The believer who walks in the Spirit of God does not need a system of laws to produce the right behavior – they rise from within. Jesus told us before he ascended to the Father that he would send us the Spirit to help us live together in community.

Carefully read the 3 categories of these gifts defined below.  Which is easy for you?  Which is harder to accomplish?

Inner Qualities that reflect our relationship to God

The first three fruit (love, joy and peace) have to do with our relationship with God.  Love nurtures an obedience and willingness to serve God before all else.  Joy provides a deep sense of well-being that all is well in God and that the joy of the Lord is our strength.  Peace comes from being right with God – it reminds that God is in control.

REFLECTION:  When you make decisions, how do you live out of these qualities? What practices are a part of your process that acknowledges God and God’s will? How does your method of making decisions take God’s will into consideration?

The Christian’s attitude toward others

The next 3 fruit help us properly focus our attitude toward others.  Often when we are in the heat of a decision, there is a risk of treating others who disagree with you as being wrong or the enemy.  This should never happen.  Consider the true meaning of the next three qualities:

Patience is being tolerant of others even to the point of enduring pain inflicted by them.  It is a calm willingness to accept situations that are irritating or painful.

Kindness is being decent to others – being humane toward others. Especially people different from you.  Not remaining silent in the face of a wrong, really matters; allowing God to use you to make things better is important.  Kindness stands ready to forgive.

Goodness is often called generosity.  It is a moral and spiritual excellence in doing good for others.  think of it as allowing GOd’s grace to pass through you to others so God gets the glory.

REFLECTION: How would you rate your treatment of others who think differently from you?  How do you live out these qualities in the way you listen to another perspective or proposal?  Would you say that God is glorified in the conversations and interactions of people when they gather to make decisions or is more like a power play or competition?

Living out our Christian Calling

The last three Fruit of the Spirit guides how we live out our Christian calling with one another.  Faithfulness is being loyal and trustworthy to God’s best.  It is believing that God has a higher purpose. Gentleness causes us to be humble and work for God’s best in us.  Self-Control is often misunderstood to mean controlling how things turn out so that our choice prevails. Rather, it is restraining anything in us that prevents us from following God whole heartedly.  Sometimes this means that we act in ways that leave us open to fresh perspectives and options to the decisions we face.

REFLECTION: How do people in your congregation or organization live out their calling when making decisions?  Do you seek God’s will together or does your process cause a ‘free-for-all’ of clashing wills and agendas?  How might you foster these fruit in your group?

Ways to use this material

Galatians 5 makes a good study for leadership groups and decision-makers.  Consider ways to keep this material before people such as Devotions, Preaching series, or as an Evaluation tool.

Conclusion

We can learn several things from this Bible passage:

  1.  The Holy Spirit is our Sustainer, Guide and Counselor whose presence makes a real difference in how we live in community and approach decisions.  The Spirit helps us to be in tune with God’s purpose for our lives and religious groups.
  2. We are not perfect! We are all a work in progress – Methodists call it ‘moving on to perfection’. Do not get frustrated or impatient with yourself or others. Strive to let God dwell in you so you are more in God’s image.
  3. The Fruit of the Spirit is not a gauge to judge one other or put others down.  How we live out these fruit in unique although there are common traits.
  4. When people see these fruit in us – they want to come to Christ! People are turned off by infighting and a lackluster witness of how Christians work together to make decisions.  Is God glorified when they see your actions and hear your words?

May God’s fruit dwell in you and be evident when you make your next decision.

 

Relationships Undermined by Twitter

Australian politician Ed Husic has signed off Twitter because it is “an accelerant for hyper-partisanship”. Relationships are undermined when you only speak to people in bursts of 140 characters. The Twitter mindset is anathema to consensus building. Can Christians value relationships more than they value cultural practices like Twitter?

Thinking about Twitter, reflect on what practices work against the  relationships that Christ wants us to have with one another.

What does Twitter achieve?

1.  It saves time

Twitter is made for purpose in a world that is information rich and time poor. Sharing information in short, sharp bursts takes very little time to prepare or to take in. With only 140 characters to work with Twittees (is that the word?) can push out information fast. Even a slow reader can take less than a minute to read a Twitter post.

2.  Talking is more important than listening and relationships

A whole new collection of relationships are possible with the ability to deliver and receive information so quickly . Twitter users don’t need to actually know who is at the other end of the “relationship”. The important thing is to get out ones own message. Some people have millions of Twitter followers. Somehow I don’t think they are reading all those replies to their tweets.

3.  Oversimplifies issues

I don’t know too may great ideas that can be conveyed in 140 or less characters. Twitter encourages a lack of subtlety and attention to detail. Hyperbole thrives in the world of sharp and strongly worded tweets.

4.  Encourages aggression and divisiveness

Of course many Twitter users are respectful of their audience and take care not to offend. Yet there are some very well known examples of Twitter users who do not care the least for how readers will experience their tweet. In fact it is the more aggressive and confrontational tweets that get noticed and get responses.

Relationships need the opposite of Twitter

1.  They take the time that is needed

2.  The opinions of others are valued more highly than ones own views

3.  People in relationships understand that issues are complicated

4.  Quality relationships scale down tension and value collaboration

Break with the culture – support relationships

When Ed Husic indicated that he was withdrawing from Twitter people called to ask if he was OK. He was told how foolish he was in withdrawing from such an important tool of communication. To his credit Mr Husic said that the down side of Twitter was worse than any upside. Describing Twitter as a “bully pulpit” and a medium that fuels “outrage and argument” he quit.

Can Christians who value relationships within the family of Jesus be as brave as Mr Husic? Can we abandon the dominant practices of our culture when they do not serve to build up the body of Christ. Or do we fret that if we do not use the ways of the world then we will not get our message out?

I am not talking about Twitter here. There are many culturally accepted practices in the church that hold too many Christians in their thrall. They do so even when they oppose Christian values and character. Yet many Christians continue with them because they think they will lose influence, power and connections if they abandon them.

Far too many Christians embrace the aggressive practices of contemporary politics. They belittle, attack, lie and manipulate because that is the way to get things done. The way that the world works has infected the church.

Do you have the courage to break with the culture? If you understand that taking a political approach to church problems is at odds with the gospel – are you brave enough to leave that approach behind? If you do then people will wonder if you are OK. Some will say that you are a fool. Others will assure you that your enemies will step in and fill  the vacuum that you have left behind.

Resurrection requires a death. New life comes after an ending. Christ’s hope, and the discipleship to which we are called, needs us to take up a cross. The cross that the church needs to take up now is the abandonment of the way in which the world deals with difference and to carry – in risk and suffering – the cross of Christ’s way.

 

Satisfied with How Your Church Makes Decisions?

How do you like to make decisions?

Imagine that you are in a church meeting facing a very important decision.  Got one in mind?  Perhaps you are considering adding staff, starting a new ministry, or even leaving the denomination.

Would you rather:

  1. Be personally involved in making the decision? OR Let a few key leaders decide the matter for you?
  2. Have a detailed, written proposal on the issue with clear consequences? OR Trust that details will get worked out later by someone?
  3. Have time to ask questions and talk with others to shape the best decision? OR Prefer to have a straight up and down vote and get it over with?
  4. Like to know the timetable to implement the decision and how the decision will impact others? OR “Wing it” and figure it out later?
  5. Take time to discern the will of God for your faith community? OR Finish the business meeting quickly and end the angst?

What are the options?

Did you answer “yes” the majority of the first choices? If so, the odds are high that you are not satisfied with a parliamentary style of making decisions. Unfortunately, that’s the only method most churches use to make decisions. Yet most people long for a better way. There is one!

A parliamentary style of making decisions comes from government processes. It was never designed to reflect the interests and practices of a faith community. Therefore, it does not immerse itself in the ‘means of grace’ like prayer, study and conferencing. It is a business model that tends to focus on the inital proposal brought before a group.

Problems with a parliamentary way of business

This approach:

  • limits information to 3 “speeches” for and against a motion
  • over simplifies issues by creating an artificial binary choice between “yes” and “no”
  • creates winners and losers by forcing the majority view on the minority
  • can be confusing when people try to amend or substitute motions
  • usually does not spend time in study, or small groups interaction
  • is not concerned about implementing the decision – just making it

Yes, this process can work when the situation warrants a simple, quick decision like the paint color in the Fellowship Hall, but it is not highly participatory or engaging except for the final vote. However, on important issues it is less than effective and can actually cause harm.

Benefits of a consensus approach

A consensus-based approach to making decisions is designed especially for a faith community. So it includes prayer, study and discussion. Also it is respectful of different viewpoints and considers creative options.

Further, it:

  • can involve the entire community and hear diverse viewpoints
  • lessens conflict by sharing information and practicing respectful listening
  • surfaces creative options for consideration and seeks common ground before a vote
  • “perfects” a proposal so it speaks for the whole community
  • allows people to ask questions and get clarification on complex matters
  • moves naturally to a decision point when people have felt heard

To learn more about the differences between a parliamentary model of making decisions and a faith-based model, I invite you to read our book:  The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.  It details a consensus-based approach to use when making decisions.

I encourage you to move toward a consensus-based model to strengthen your faith community. This approach will allow it to deal well with hard challenges. Be the faith community God intends you to be.  Live out of your values. Use a decision-making process that expresses the Christian values of attending to God, respecting the people Christ has called into a community of discernment, is Spirit led and leads to discernment.

Leave your comments below to let us know what process you use to make decisions and how well it is working for you.  We welcome your feedback!

 

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!