Uniting The Church – Is it Possible?

Partisanship in the church is not an obstacle to uniting the church. Closed mindedness to the other person and enmity is what is fatal if we are interested in uniting the church.

United Methodist Church (USA) – A Case Study

For many years the United Methodist Church (USA), hereafter the UMC, has been tearing itself apart over a range of issues. The most polarising issue at the moment is the one that it shares with many other churches – the place of LGBTIQ people in the life of the church. In some churches the issue is about whether LGBTIQ people can be members, or even Christians. For other churches it is about ordination or whether the church should conduct marriages or blessings of their love for one another.

In 2016 the UMC General Conference in Portland had the opportunity to talk together about this issue in a new, respectful and collaborative way. The meeting refused to use a new process. There were many reasons for this decision. However a major reason the new rule was not used was because people preferred to fight rather than co-operate. People wanted a fight so that they could defeat their opponents and vanquish them.  They cared less about each other than getting the votes. “To the victor the spoils” was the driving agenda of too many at that meeting.

Later in the meeting the General Conference established a Special Commission on the Way Forward. The aim of the Commission is to bring a plan to a special “called Conference” about how the church can overcome its incessant conflict, splits and the destructive effects on its mission. Tragically the Commission seems to have used the contemporary political approach of bringing the opposing parties together to cut a deal. Inevitably this approach will not succeed in uniting the church. Rather it will entrench the differences as side each jockeys for its agenda to succeed.

Uniting the church is not going to happen through encouraging partisanship and political game playing.  However, it is still not too late for the UMC to deploy an alternative method of respect and collaboration.

Uniting the church – a cynics view

There are many in the UMC, and other churches, who feel that the divide is too great and the enmity too strong to make respect and collaboration possible.

The argument runs

  • trust has been broken
  • with all the power in the opposing camps there is no middle ground
  • leaders get positions of power because they are hyper-partisan
  • bias in communications is so strong there is no room for a middle voice
  • with opposing world views clashing, it’s impossible to respect the other
  • every discussion is framed as a binary “yes” / “no” choice
  • don’t be so naive to think we can respect each other – you’ll get used

This cynicism is rife in many churches. So, in the face of divisions the idea of uniting Christians again seems like searching for the prospector’s lost reef of gold.

Let’s get realistic!

In the American context the churches face a particular challenge. Their political leaders have become more and more disrespectful of each other. The once encouraging ability to work “across the aisle” seems to have disappeared. Hyperbole, denigration and demonising of those with different views is standard discourse in politics and the media. Christians operating in this environment are at great risk of being infected with this poison. That’s a real problem and it needs to be taken seriously.

Fighting each other in the church is destructive of the church’s witness. People can see a political fight anywhere at any time. When they see Christians doing it then they will not hang around. When Christians tell me that it’s important to destroy their opponents so that the true Christian message can be preached I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. People are desperate to see love, experience community, and to receive respect. People are desperate to encounter in their experience of others the love, community and respect that God has shown humanity in Jesus Christ. The mission of God through the church is undermined when Christians prefer fighting to loving one another.

To fight each other in order to gain the spoils of victory will result in a pyrrhic victory. The cost of a victory delivered through lies, power plays and political deals costs the victor so much that it is really a loss. So often we forget that the way we reach a decision can be as important as the decision itself.

Finding a way past hyper-partisanship is the only hope for the church.  Uniting and peace are possible for the church. The alternative of division and discord is depressing and defeatist.

Being realistic includes:

  • resisting the power of local culture as it seeks to shape the character of Christian communities
  • grieving over the way that Christians fighting pushes people away from the Christian faith
  • recognising that the way we win can cause more harm than good
  • continuing on the hyper-partisan route is hopeless
  • Christians are a people of hope who have the promises of God about what our future can look like
  • we have the Holy Spirit with us so that we do not lose the way

What are the options

1.   Treat each other as sisters and brothers

See each other first as sisters and brothers in Christ. Avoid the temptation to demonise each other. Yes that is a real act of will. Actually it is an act of faith too! Do you have faith that God has made us family? If so what are you going to do about that when you disagree with someone?

2.   Talk to each other about your faith

In the last 20 years one of the great movements of the Holy Spirit in uniting Christians has been the Global Christian Forum. Pentecostal, Evangelical and Catholic Christians were not members of established national and international ecumenical bodies. In the case of Pentecostals and Evangelical Christians it was because they saw ecumenical Christians as theologically liberal and politically “progressive”.

Catholics and the other groups have had significant levels of enmity. Catholics considered that these churches were proselytising their members. Many Evangelicals and Pentecostals did not regard Catholics as Christians. Their leaders attacked each other and distrusted them.

In the face of these harsh realities uniting these groups seemed impossible. The Global Christian Forum was established to address these issues. It’s methodology is very simple – meet each other as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ. The structure of their fellowship is for people to share the stories of their faith – how they came to it, what nurtures it, what they hope for because of their faith.

3.   Learn from groups that are uniting their communities

I have just started reading the latest book by Mark Gerzon The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. Mark is a mediator and an expert on political bridge building.

In the book he takes a realistic view of the obstacles to co-operation that exist in the American political context. He tells exciting stories about grass roots action for change. Mark Gerzon has biases. He prefers one candidate over another. One set of policies are viewed as better than others. However he has chosen not to be hyper-partisan in support for them. One key insight that makes this possible for him is that he has owned that he both liberal and conservative. Recognising that we are not monochrome, but are diverse in ourself, makes it possible to be comfortable with difference in others. The self talk we do as we explore our internal differences can be applied to the dialogue we have with others.

His four core strategies for uniting American citizens again across the partisan divide are:

  • reinventing citizenship
  • leading from across the borders that divide
  • championing the whole truth
  • serving the people

I highly commend The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. You can access a copy here. If you purchase anything through this link within 24 hours we receive a small commission. This helps us to cover the costs of this website.

4.   Apply consensus building resources in your church

Don’t just think about the problems – work on the solutions in your context. There are many simple things that you can do to change the culture and practices of your church. Use the tools that have been proven to be effective in uniting Christians.

This website is devoted to making resources available to people who want to do consensus building in their church. If you are newlease browse and find more support. For a comprehensive resource we recommend our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together. You can purchase a copy  from Cokebury here or from Amazon.

Conclusion

There are many conflicts in the church. Many seem intractable. However relationships can be turned around – uniting divided people is possible. The good news is that God is committed to the goal of uniting us as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us, faith to live out of, and many resources from inside and outside the church to resource us. Don’t give up!

Six things that work against consensus

There are a number of things that work against consensus being achieved. They need to be recognised and addressed.

Group Think

When being a member of a group creates pressure on members to narrow down the range of opinions Groupthink occurs. When a group is very homogeneous in character, and attitudes among group members are too similar, it works against consensus. In such cases it is very difficult to generate new ideas that lead to the best decisions. This risk is not limited to groups that seek to build consensus for their decisions. However when coming to consensus is highly prized in a group, there can be pressure to conform. Groupthink can be minimized by allowing individuals to first independently collect information before presenting their recommended course of action.

When there is no group

A collection of individuals who have no shared purpose or common interests cannot make a group decision. There must be something that binds  people together and there must also be a shared willingness to work on the project together.

A major challenge facing churches that want to move to consensus building in decision-making is a high level of conflict amongst their members. The level of brokenness in relationships, limited trust and major positional differences are significant challenges and work against consensus.

Nevertheless every effort should be made to find the common ground of some shared values or higher level shared goals.  Serious disagreements should not be used as an excuse to avoid trying to build consensus.

No agreed purpose for the meeting

If people think that a meeting is only a rubber stamp for the leadership’s preconceived ideas then you can’t use consensus processes. When a meeting is seen as a source ideas that will be decided upon later then genuine consensus will not be sought. In The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together  we make the point that it works against consensus if participants in a meeting don’t agree about its purpose.

In emergencies

As the old saying goes “there are no democrats in a foxhole.” Different kinds of leadership are required for different purposes. A crisis needs swift action and usually a decision about which issue is most important to address at that time. Authority based leadership is most suitable in this context.

When there is no decision to take

Sometimes this occurs when a decision is particularly trivial. You don’t need a sophisticated process to decide the color of the table cloths in the church hall.

On other occasions it will be because not everyone has to agree on a given course of action. A church meeting might gather to consider mission strategies at which many ideas are shared. As interested people gather around the ideas that they support, they don’t need everyone to agree to do their thing before it can happen.

It isn’t the right time

Sometimes a group will not have all the information that it needs so it cannot reach a good decision. In such situations a pause should be taken. This allows for more data or resources to be gathered to inform the next stage of the conversation.

On other occasions people may have a clear idea on what should be done, but  will know that now is not the time. Many a good idea fails because it is planted out of season. Being willing to consider “when” is as important as the “what”.

Conclusion

Clearly there are obstacles to coming to consensus – where that means a unanimous decision. For other examples see here. Please share a comment  about when consensus building has proved to be difficult and what you did about it.

Even if it is unlikely that you will reach a unanimous view on a given subject – do not stop using consensus building techniques. Continue to show respect for one another. Listen carefully to all the voices. Seek common ground and be prepared to change your mind. Even if you don’t get to full agreement there will be many areas where consensus can be built. By identifying the areas of agreement it is possible to clearly identify continuing disagreements and to generate strategies for addressing them.

Drafting Groups – devil or angel?

Drafting Groups are the most contentious part of a consensus building approach to discernment. Sending proposals to small groups where members discuss them is a strategy that can be used for complex business. These discernment groups have a facilitator who works through a well prepared process. Their views, along with recommendations for changes and new ideas, are sent to a drafting group.  The role of the drafting group is to bring all the ideas together.

Devils or Angels?

The most frequent objection to this process is that drafting groups have a lot of power. Cynics say that this small group can impose its views on the meeting and manipulate the process to achieve what it wants. The members of Drafting Groups are sometimes accused of being self serving and manipulative.

Drafting (sometimes called Facilitation) Groups take the information that has been provided through a small group discussion process. After attending to all the input they re present the views that have come to them. They do this by writing a report that is presented back to the meeting in a plenary session. The report explains what was reported to them, what they did with the information and why they made the decisions that they did. Drafting Groups help the members to have their say and to influence the final outcome of the discussion. If this group did not exist then the small group time would just be a lot of hot air.

Why you can have confidence in Drafting Groups

  • People are appointed who are known to be fair, trustworthy and true servant leaders
  • Members are not chosen to represent interest groups but because of their skills and maturity
  • Response sheets that are used in Discernment Groups are prepared by an experienced leader and are in a standard format
  • Reports from the Drafting Group explain every step of its work and the reasons for any new proposals that they bring
  • Members can ask questions of the report and have to receive it
  • If the new proposals do not reflect the developing consensus in the meeting then there will be significant push back
  • The Drafting Group makes no decisions but seeks to support the discernment of the members of the meeting

Trust is an important part of any meeting process. Appointing the right people and using tried and tested reporting formats means that members can have great trust in Drafting Groups.

Rev Norbet Stephens was Chairperson of the Drafting Group at the recent General Council meeting of the WCRC. He acknowledges that it is a challenging process, but with a skilled team it is possible to produce proposals that move forward the process of discernment. Hear Norbet in his own words.

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.