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.

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.