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.

5 questions to ask when thinking about moving to consensus based discernment

 

 

Making big changes requires planning. One way to develop a plan is to ask some basic questions around what you are thinking of doing. If you are thinking of moving your local church Board, congregation, or committee to consensus based discernment then I expect that you have a lot of questions. Be sure to leave your questions at the end of this post. We would love to have a chance to respond to them

Exactly what questions you have will be affected by your context and how far along you are towards abandoning the failed parliamentary style of decision-making. Most people will have a lot more than 5 questions. But let’s make a start with 5. I suggest that you begin by thinking of your questions in terms of what, who, when, where, how.

What do I want to achieve?

Are you clear on your goals for making the change? If you do not have a compelling, motivating narrative to share with others then you will struggle to bring people along with you. So before you answer the “what” question think and read about the benefits of a consensus based discernment process. Then focus on the spiritual outcomes and Christian character of this discernment process. But hey, it’s your story. I’d love to hear what your motivations are at the end of post.

Who will I work with to bring change?

You are not alone in your desire for change. Identify the people around you who have a similar yearning for a more authentically Christian, respectful, inclusive, culturally relevant, effective and efficient process for your church meetings. Talk to them about your hopes. Listen to theirs. Encourage and build each other up Work as part of a team for change. Going out on your own may be necessary in some situations but it isn’t Plan A.

This journey may be new to you but there are leaders from all around the world who have been on this path before you. This website, its blogs, our training events, our Facebook page (@makingchurchdecisions) are among the places where these leaders meet, support and share experiences and ideas. Reach out to people through these avenues and be part of our community of learning and encouragement. Post a request or question at the end of this blog.

When will I make a start?

Start when you have done your homework and the Spirit leads you. Know why you are proposing a change. Gather around you a local team who share your vision. Develop your knowledge so that you can articulate and implement an alternative process.

But don’t wait until you know everything that there is to know before venturing into using the principles and tools of consensus building discernment. Once you understand the core principles then it is possible to design a meeting process that uses them. The techniques vary a little in their complexity depending on the size and type of group but mostly they are quite simple. Any local church Committee, Board or congregational meeting can use consensus building techniques – so give it a go as soon as you can.

Where will I try consensus building discernment?

Lead where you have the opportunity to lead. Some of you will be leading in small groups and others in regional, state wide or national contexts. God has called you into leadership in that place so that’s where you can change to a more healthy, life giving discernment process.

Mostly I recommend that people walk before they run. Whatever the size and complexity of your context there will be places that are more simple and easier to change. So you might build up your experience in Committees or Boards. If you lead Districts or Presbyteries you don’t have to run the whole meeting using a new process the first time that you introduce it. Just use a different process for one or two pieces of business.

A consensus building approach to discernment can be accommodated in any church’s polity or system of government. Just use the process to build as much consensus as possible and when necessary shift to the conventional way of making the decision. You can use consensus building discernment in your setting.

How will I do it?

Prayerfully, carefully, respectfully develop a vision for what is possible, identify others whom the Holy Spirit is leading and work with them. Then make some suggestions about how your meetings might be run differently.

Sometimes the challenge is how to get a conversation for change on to the agenda of a group. Several easy ways to start a conversation include:

  •     hold a leader’s retreat on the spiritual practice of group discernment
    • in your annual Board review of its performance as a Board include questions about which meeting processes people feel good about or not, and why
    • devotions at a meeting could look at texts like 1 Corinthians 12: 4-7 and members asked what the implications are for their meeting practice
    • write a case study on a meeting that went particularly badly and unpack why it was so and explore what other options would have led to a better result
    • Do you have any other ideas – please share them at the end of the post.

Five questions

Just fill in the blanks by answering these questions.

What do I want to achieve?

Who can I work with?

When will I make a start?

Where will I try out my new ideas?

How will I go about bringing in change?

Ask your questions at the end of the post and they may lead to a future blog topic.