1000 people tried consensus – how did it go?

WCRC General Council Logo 2017

The World Communion of Reformed Churches took a huge risk by using consensus as their way of discernment and decision-making. Around a 1,000 people met as the General Council in Leipzig June / July 2017 and consensus was new to the vast majority. How did it go?

What the Participants said

Martin Engles

Amy Eckert wrote a comprehensive article on the process, its goals and values. In it she interviewed a number of participants. Here are some of their observations.

Within the small groups the real work of discernment takes place. “Discernment truly is more about listening than speaking,” said Gradye Parsons. “It is important to listen to what others are saying. It is important to listen to what God is saying. And it’s important to consider your own thoughts with regard to the issue and in light of what you have heard.”

Rev. Lucy Wambui Waweru, minister of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa serving the Nyeri Church in central Kenya, values very much the input that ordinary delegates have on the process within the small groups.

“Discernment Groups include voices from around the world,” she said. “The groups also have a mix of older, more seasoned ecumenists as well as younger delegates. And every voice is heard.”

What is different?

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

Waweru agreed. She also appreciated that giving consensus did not mean that a delegate was 100% supportive or opposed to a proposal. Nor did it mean that the delegate envisioned a clear path toward adoption of the new proposal.

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

If you were at the General Council of WCRC we would love to hear your comments. Also any questions are very welcome.

You can read the whole article on the WCRC website.

Five foundations for consensus

Foundations matter. With these five foundations you will be able to build a solid process for consensus based decision-making.

A common goal

People gathered together in groups can have a wide range of aims when they come together. Unless these aims are aligned in some way then building consensus is not possible. It is no accident that the effective examples of consensus based discernment or decision-making are seen in groups that have a shared goal (web link to historic egs post).

Goals need to be aligned at a very high level – the detail is not as important as the highest shared value(s). Examples of high-level goals include making a commercial profit, maintaining peace and stability in a community, seeking to do the will of God, community action groups seeking change in their community. If the focus is too much on lower level objectives then the divergence between participants magnifies.

Identify and agreement about the high level goals.  People will support and strive to achieve these. This is an essential prerequisite foundation for building consensus. These goals or objectives may be served by a wide variety of strategies. The individual ideas about the way to achieve the goal become less important than the end point. As a result people can change from their initial ideas, or can accommodate more than one approach. If people see alternatives as a better way to support the main / common goal then they will accept them.

In The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together  we make the point that it is crucial to ensure that everyone agrees about the purpose of the meeting. For churches the fundamental priority for meetings is to discern the will of Christ for his church in this place and time. With this goal people can exhibit great openness to new insights, people changing positions and a growing consensus be developed. But don’t just assume that everyone is pulling in the same direction!

Commitment to reach consensus

Consensus building is a journey. The end point of that journey is discernment. You can’t abduct people and take them on this trip! People have to take it on voluntarily. This is the second of the foundations – people want to be part of the process.

Everyone must be willing to really try. Participants in the process need:

  • honesty about what it is they want or don’t want
  • genuine listening to what others have to say
  • humility so they can receive the wisdom of others and be prepared to change their position
  • patience – take the time to understand and to explain oneself
  • trust and openness – including that people will not seek to abuse the process

The Setting

How people are arranged in a meeting and how they “gather” are critical foundations for the success of a discernment process. Use a space that is hospitable and welcoming. If possible have refreshments and comfortable chairs. Arrange the room so that people look at each other face to face and not at the back of someone’s head.

Make sure that you spend time gathering and building the community. This can include prayer, a time with Scripture and “reconnecting as a community”. People come with all sorts of things on their mind. So time needs to be spent acknowledging each other, supporting members and reminding ourselves why we are there.

Take time

Don’t rush! If the process of consensus building takes longer than expected it rarely matters. Most business can be deferred if a final position has not been reached. Rushing the introduction of material, the listening to one another and the generation of options, undermines the process of building consensus. Some journeys are quick and others take longer. That’s OK – reaching the destination in good shape is the important thing.

Good facilitation

If your group is inexperienced in consensus building then your leaders may not have knowledge of all the steps in the process. There may be tools that can be used to build consensus that they don’t know. Training is available through resources like this website, trainers  in consensus building, and The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

However when your group is particularly large or the issues are quite complex give serious thought to using an external facilitator. Facilitators bring external expertise that support your leaders, make the process go smoothly, produce resources for use in the meeting, and ensure that all the important parts of the process get covered.

All of these conditions can be grown in your group over time. You don’t have to have everything perfect before you start on the consensus building road for decision-making. However like all wise travellers – you will want to know that you have the key requirements for the trip packed with you: a common goal, commitment, the setting and the time needed, and good facilitation. Are there any other “must haves” for this trip to discernment that you can share with us in the comments section?

 

Community based decision-making process – 2nd step: invitation

 

Who would throw a party and not send an invitation to guests? Sounds silly, right? Would you believe that many church leaders plan for an important decision and fail to get the right people to the table? Therefore in an effective decision-making process invitation is essential. So give careful thought to who should be present. It takes effort to think this through. However it is well worth it.

This post is part of a series of four that walk you through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. The first step is preparation. Step 2 is invitation. Step 3 is deliberation and decision. The final step 4 is to implement the decision.

“The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 92, 93 and 185. You can get your copy from Cokesbury or Amazon.

Decide who should be present

I know – it sounds obvious, but this step is often overlooked. Who should be on your invitation list? Some meetings have a limited group of people involved in the decision-making. Some decision-making bodies like congregations can be quite large. When holding important meetings make sure to hold them when as many people as possible can participate. The first group of people who need to be present are the people who need to make the decision – plan for maximum involvement.

Decision-makers need good information and good processes. Therefore the second group of people you need at a meeting are resource people. They may be subject experts who offer technical information or other data.

Some discussions are complex and need processes that can maximize participation, exploration of issues, and the drawing out of opinions. Not every Church Board or congregation has experts in meeting processes. So consider – do we need some help in developing the processes for our discussions?

Decision-makers are not the only persons affected by a decision. So it is important to have people who are affected by a decision, present at some stage in the decision-making process. Decisions-makers need to understand the impact of a decision. This is important information for decision-makers. Therefore think about who can help a group understand the impact that their decision will have. Then add them to the invitation list.

When possible, make a list of people who need to participate. This group will include those with authority to decide, people who can assist the knowledge base and processes of the group, and others who help to make the impact of the decision clear to the decision-makers.

Develop a clear communication plan – invitation

Participants need to know what is happening. Encourage people to understand why it is important that they attend. Also they need to know where the meeting will be held and other important details.

A note in the bulletin or minutes is not enough to get the word out. Try some of these ideas: send an open letter to the congregation or organization, make numerous announcements, present involvement as an invitation to something important, and introduce the process leaders to your group and have them explain what will happen.

Practice the Means of Grace

Invite people to be in a spirit of prayer for the meeting. Encourage them to pray and reflect on scripture during this time. Every member of the community of faith is a partner in the process. So respect them and affirm them by providing them with the opportunity to support the process through prayer and other acts of faithfulness.

Conclusion

When you have the right people at the table, the process of making decisions goes better. Take the time to invite people in as many ways as possible. Encourage their participation by providing good information, specific invitations and concrete recommendations for how they can be involved.

Do the ideas in this article match things that you have done? How did that work out?  Let us know your thoughts, experience and questions.

 

 

Community based decision-making process – 1st step: Preparation

Be prepared for anything

A sound decision-making process needs good preparation. So put in place the steps to be effective. This series of four posts walks you through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. The first step is preparation. Step 2 is invitation. Step 3 is deliberation and decision.The final step 4 is to implement the decision.

How you begin the work of making decisions affects how you complete it. Preparation is the crucial first step. “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 86 – 92; and the Checklist on page 184. You can get your copy from Cokesbury or Amazon.

Preparation

In this step of the process focus on organisation. Therefore give attention to the following elements. Then you will cover all the important parts of this phase. Overlooking any of the following six steps can lead to significant negative consequences. Do not underestimate the value of good preparation!

  1. Name the decision to be made

    People need to know what is being asked of them. So put clearly into words the issue, and the form of the proposal. This clarifies what is being considered. Then people can pray and think wisely about the issue.

    Provide information about the possible decision (i.e. the proposal). Also include how and when the decision will be made. People in an organisation are more likely to accept a decision if there is transparency. People need to understand and trust the process or they will want to go over the issue again and again. So tell them the process!

    You have told people the issue / proposal being considered. They know when it will be considered ,and the process that will be used to come to a decision. In addition people need to know who is making the decision. In a local church context this may seem obvious. However when a decision is contentious it is well worth reminding the wider group who has been trusted to lead in this area of decision-making. This is a way of building confidence and trust. If there is an external facilitator involved it is important to share, widely, who they are and why they have been selected.

    The first stage of preparation is to let the decision makers, and those affected by the decision, know what is happening. Be as clear as you can.

  2.  Design the Process

    Consider forming a Process Planning Group to assist in this task. This group will take the leadership (perhaps the responsibility) for designing an effective process. Their role is to draw a road map for the journey towards discernment. On this map will be:

    + Communication strategies for the community affected by the decision.

    + Communication strategies for the decision makers.

    + A process for use within the meeting. It will cover information sharing, ways to explore an issue, strategizing about how to include all voices and how to generate creative options to resolve the matter, etc.

    + The timeline for making a decision – it doesn’t all have to be in one meeting!

  3. Fill key leadership roles

    Name the meeting chair (this is often a person already elected). If you decide to have small group discussion as a part of the process, design the groups and ensure they are inclusive. Recruit small group leaders and schedule as many training sessions as required to make them ready. When making decisions on matters that have a profound impact on your organisation we recommend that you utilize a trained facilitator to guide the process.

  4. Support the entire process with prayer and other spiritual practices

    Don’t forget to call a season of prayer, and if appropriate, fasting for the entire process. If there are Bible passages that people can helpfully study and meditate on, make these known. Immerse your community in the process. Provide knowledge about what is happening. It is nothing less than discerning the will of Christ for His church on this issue, in this place, at this time. This is a spiritual undertaking.

  5. Set Meeting Guidelines

    Be clear about who can participate in the process. Also be able to say what they need to know in order to participate. Now is the time to list respectful ways to work together (listen deeply, ask clarifying questions, be in a spirit of prayer, etc). If you don’t have a Behavioral Covenant now may be a good time to make one. Make these guidelines known well ahead of time.

  6. Provide a safe environment to meet

The location of the meeting matters. The space you choose should allow for people to clearly see and hear each other. We recommend setting the room up in a circular pattern to promote a sense of community. If necessary have a sound system. Think about hospitality and comfort – respect and care for the people who are making the decision.

If you do not already have one, consider establishing a behavioral covenant to guide respectful interactions with people. If you have one ensure that it is before people and they commit to following it.

Do not assume that people know to communicate well with one another. Encourage people to listen before speaking, to ask clarifying questions so they understand what is said, not to monopolize the conversation, etc.

Conclusion

If you take  time to prepare your decision-making process, you will lay the groundwork for a good experience and make better decisions. The goal of your preparation is to give people confidence in the process and therefore to be better able to accept the outcome.

 

5 factors that lead to failure

 

Making changes in any organisation may result in failure. Moving toward a consensus based process of making decisions is no different. Avoid these 5 factors and improve your chance of successfully bringing in consensus discernment.

It takes time and energy to bring change. Obviously there are factors that can lead to failure when implementing change. However it is well worth the effort when you hear people exclaim that they have finally worked together faithfully to discern the will of God. Anyone can make a decision – it takes a faith community to discern a Godly direction!

The process outlined in our book, “The Church Guide For making Decisions Together” involves Preparation, Invitation, Deliberation, and Action. When done properly, people will feel good about the decisions they make together. When not done properly, people feel cheated and misled. There are ways to reduce the risk that your change process will lead to failure.

Here are 5 major mistakes that leaders often make when introducing a consensus building approach to making decisions. Watch out for, and guard against, these 5 factors that lead to failure.

  1. Failure to model the approach

    From the Chairperson to the newest participant, active listening and respect for one another is crucial when making decisions. Leaders must be genuine in wanting to hear all points of view. Show patience and careful listening in their Deliberative Sessions. Be sure to ask people what they mean if it is not clear. Help those who need it to say what is on their mind. This helps people see how it works. Once confident, they will be willing to try it in their own context.

  2. Failure to adequately prepare people

    People deserve to know what is expected of them in this discernment process and how to engage fully. This is the same with anything new.  Therefore, there is no substitute for an Orientation Session that explains the process well and how to participate. When people are confused they make mistakes or find it hard to trust the leadership. As a result they will complain and drag their feet.

    Another failure in preparation is not forming inclusive and diverse small groups ahead of time. Neglecting to identify and train the small group facilitators to guide their work is a recipe for disaster. We recommend hiring a Process Facilitator for the first time the process is used in large groups. This ensures that no preparation is missed and leaders are trained and participants engaged.

  3. Failure to ask open questions

    Open questions (one’s that cannot be answered by “yes” or “no”) lead to a good discussion and creativity. If people are offered only the chance to agree or disagree the conversation quickly grinds to a halt. Examples of open questions are: “What might be some of the things we need to take into account about this idea?” “How do you feel / respond / think about that comment?”

    All too often, leaders unintentionally ask questions that lead people in a specific direction. “Do you believe that…?”  “Don’t you agree that…?”  “Should we do this?” Questions from the Chairperson can make people feel like they are being railroaded into a particular direction. Therefore a consensus building decision-making process crafts questions that engage people around both the possibilities and consequences of their decision. Powerful questions include: “What do you need to know in order to make this decision?” “Why is this issue important to you?”

    Closed questions close off discussion. However open questions generate the response necessary to generate new insights and options. They make it possible to complete the process with integrity.

  4. Failure to get the right people to the table

    Who would throw a party and not make a guest list?  Silly, right?  Leaders who have an important decision looming need to give thought to who should be involved in making it. When possible, leaders (as well as stakeholders) should work together. This eliminates the mistake of making assumptions or not making decisions based on reality.

  5. Failure to provide enough time for the process

    We have seen facilitators not schedule the process wisely. So inadequate time is provided for Information Sharing and not enough time for the small groups to complete their discussions. Time spent doing these things well means that the time used in moving to a decision is often much quicker. Yes, this process invests more time than a traditional “Let’s vote!” approach in the information and discussion stage. However it gets results because the best options for action get raised, there are less amendments from the floor, and reduced confusion about what is being decided. Plus, less time is spent revisiting issues later with this approach!  The book lists various tips that save time. These include the use of colored cards to gauge feelings without the need for people to make speeches at the microphone.

Conclusion

With knowledge, you can avoid making these mistakes. Reading our book:  “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” and using the process in your setting will work. Send specific questions to us through this site and we will respond. We are also available for consultations and training. Contact us for more information at julia@makingchurchdecisions.com or terence@makingchurchdecisions.com.