Satisfied with How Your Church Makes Decisions?

How do you like to make decisions?

Imagine that you are in a church meeting facing a very important decision.  Got one in mind?  Perhaps you are considering adding staff, starting a new ministry, or even leaving the denomination.

Would you rather:

  1. Be personally involved in making the decision? OR Let a few key leaders decide the matter for you?
  2. Have a detailed, written proposal on the issue with clear consequences? OR Trust that details will get worked out later by someone?
  3. Have time to ask questions and talk with others to shape the best decision? OR Prefer to have a straight up and down vote and get it over with?
  4. Like to know the timetable to implement the decision and how the decision will impact others? OR “Wing it” and figure it out later?
  5. Take time to discern the will of God for your faith community? OR Finish the business meeting quickly and end the angst?

What are the options?

Did you answer “yes” the majority of the first choices? If so, the odds are high that you are not satisfied with a parliamentary style of making decisions. Unfortunately, that’s the only method most churches use to make decisions. Yet most people long for a better way. There is one!

A parliamentary style of making decisions comes from government processes. It was never designed to reflect the interests and practices of a faith community. Therefore, it does not immerse itself in the ‘means of grace’ like prayer, study and conferencing. It is a business model that tends to focus on the inital proposal brought before a group.

Problems with a parliamentary way of business

This approach:

  • limits information to 3 “speeches” for and against a motion
  • over simplifies issues by creating an artificial binary choice between “yes” and “no”
  • creates winners and losers by forcing the majority view on the minority
  • can be confusing when people try to amend or substitute motions
  • usually does not spend time in study, or small groups interaction
  • is not concerned about implementing the decision – just making it

Yes, this process can work when the situation warrants a simple, quick decision like the paint color in the Fellowship Hall, but it is not highly participatory or engaging except for the final vote. However, on important issues it is less than effective and can actually cause harm.

Benefits of a consensus approach

A consensus-based approach to making decisions is designed especially for a faith community. So it includes prayer, study and discussion. Also it is respectful of different viewpoints and considers creative options.

Further, it:

  • can involve the entire community and hear diverse viewpoints
  • lessens conflict by sharing information and practicing respectful listening
  • surfaces creative options for consideration and seeks common ground before a vote
  • “perfects” a proposal so it speaks for the whole community
  • allows people to ask questions and get clarification on complex matters
  • moves naturally to a decision point when people have felt heard

To learn more about the differences between a parliamentary model of making decisions and a faith-based model, I invite you to read our book:  The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.  It details a consensus-based approach to use when making decisions.

I encourage you to move toward a consensus-based model to strengthen your faith community. This approach will allow it to deal well with hard challenges. Be the faith community God intends you to be.  Live out of your values. Use a decision-making process that expresses the Christian values of attending to God, respecting the people Christ has called into a community of discernment, is Spirit led and leads to discernment.

Leave your comments below to let us know what process you use to make decisions and how well it is working for you.  We welcome your feedback!

 

A Case Study on Denominational Division

In our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017)  we have a number of case studies about how churches have used, or not used, consensus-building processes in a positive way. (Purchase the book here.) One of the disappointing stories is from the 2016 United Methodist General Conference. Its theme was “Therefore, Go!” A focus on mission was overshadowed by a painful struggle to deal with a hot issue in the church: homosexuality and leadership. This debate highlighted the division in the church. Many delegates were relieved to “go” and leave the experience behind.

Practices Creating Division

Unfortunately

  • the General Conference continued deepening patterns of creating “losers” in the way people talked about one another and dug lines in the sand
  • important issues were defeated with little conversation by using delaying tactics such as numerous Points of Order and Calling for the Question to kill discussion
  • petitions were defeated or supported in Committee sub-groups with low numbers deciding (i.e. 20-9)
  • valuable time and resources were squandered
  • people were exhausted and frustrated
  • division was hardened

Robert’s Rules of Order

Our observation is that Robert’s Rules of Order created chaos and confusion, and reinforced the divisions among the delegates. It did not provide a way forward. It’s time to do something different that actually works.

When a matter is simple and put before the body to decide, Robert’s Rules adequately guides the process. The idea is seconded, discussed, possibly amended (improved), and voted yes or no. However, when a matter is complex or the group has more fear than faith then the process is very unhelpful. It can be manipulated, misinformation sown that cannot be challenged, people damaged, division hardened and confusion flourishes.

This is what happened in Portland.

Alternatives are available

Another process (Rule 44) would have allowed delegates to use an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order. It offered delegates the opportunity to

  • convene in small groups for prayer, conversation and discernment
  • understand the reasons for division and build respect and understanding
  • provide feedback to a drafting group that would take their insights and provide recommendations for the next stage
  • hear a report of their deliberations and seek the creative movement of the Holy Spirit
  • discuss / discern further and decide the matter with a traditional vote.

Simple. The actual process takes far less time than it took to defeat it.

Are you up for the challenge?

We are challenging denominations to use another process to Robert’s Rules to make decisions. The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017) provides such a process and is available at Cokesbury or at Amazon. We invite you to use it in your church, Annual Conference and perhaps some day it will also be used at the General Conference.

Helpful practices for avoiding division

This new resource explains the process and how to use it successfully. The process can be tailored to fit any size group and address any topic. It is written to support leaders as they make a shift in their current way of making important choices. The aim is to exchange entrenched division with consensus-building discernment. It is designed to:

  1. Help your group identify the Christian values your community seeks to live by and to do so with integrity.
  2. Deal with conflict and resistance to change so discussions can be redemptive and transforming instead of paralysing.
  3. Provide simple steps (supported with the Means of Grace) to guide deliberations and decide issues in your context.
  4. Prepare the work ahead — make arrangements to support the process in your context, train leaders, form discussion groups, etc.
  5. Invite people to participate — name the issue, and provide information for their consideration.
  6. Make the decision in your faith community.
  7. Implement and evaluate your decision.

In our case studies it is when people talk ‘to’ each other rather than ‘at’ each other that Christian community and discernment are apparent.

If you believe it is time to have an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order when making church decisions, let us know. Leave a post with your comments. We are very interested in your hopes and experience!