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.

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.

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.