What’s wrong with the way we make church decisions?

Think back to your last big church decision. It may have been about building a new sanctuary, firing a youth worker or starting a second worship service. As you think back on the debates and discussions about that issue, which image below best describes your experience?

(a) A ‘shootout at the OK Corral because some members want to win at all costs; or
(b) A positive experience of Christians conferencing together to discern the will of God?

(a) A place where the lid is kept tightly tied down on creative options that have not been thought of first by a vocal leader; or
(b) A space where all feelings, hopes and ideas are encouraged to come forward?

(a) A discussion dominated by a few articulate, domineering people; or
(b) A place where all voices are empowered, listened to and respected?

Perhaps out of frustration you scheduled a meeting to address a crucial issue and soon discovered that the final decision was made in the parking lot after the official meeting ended. Perhaps a reasonable solution was offered to resolve a matter and someone blocked its consideration with a passionate battle cry of "not in my church!" Then things ground to a halt. Situations like these, which undermine true community, highlight unhealthy patterns in religious organizations not because of what we decide but how!

Churches are experiencing growing incivility in the way their members engage with each other around matters about which they have very strong feelings. People shout at each other, keep information secret, overgeneralize, and argue for their 'side' with little or no concern for the perspectives or feelings of others. Churches lose valuable time and resources because of pervasive conflict.

Sadly, people have become accustomed to this kind of behavior and leave it unchallenged even while knowing, deep down, that it isn’t right. They know that a “winner take all” mindset and the subversive tactics that make it possible are wrong. Yet they tolerate it by their silence. It’s time for the church to stand up and challenge this prevailing culture of disagreement.

Trust in society, and in the church, is in short supply. So is discernment. The polarized atmosphere of many church meetings has led to a breakdown of trust and to people disengaging from the life and mission of the church. Younger generations shy away from leadership. Older members bear emotional scars.

Let's be clear: the prevailing meeting rules that are used in many churches and community groups actually foster disharmony and encourage negative outcomes. What is this adversarial style that is causing so much pain and harm? It is known as “Parliamentary Procedures” or simply: “Robert’s Rules of Order.” It was actually intended to help people complete an agenda in an orderly fashion. How's it working for you?

In a parliamentary process of decision-making, primacy is given to succinct reason and logical argument, which validates a conclusion. Many times we hear it said with disdain in church meetings “Oh, I wish he would just get to the point!” It is as though emotion, story, reason, and experience have nothing to offer in the search for wisdom and meaning. How far this is from the truth! In fact, emotion, story, experience, and reason have moved to the very center of how people find and understand true insight..

Not only does Robert's Rules create “winners” and “losers,” it also ignores spiritual ways of developing insight and making decisions as disciples of Jesus Christ. This process cares little about supporting the values for which the church says that it stands — such as being humble, gentle, and patient or bearing with each other in love. Fortunately, there is an alternative way of reaching a decision that is theologically, socially, culturally, and relationally more appropriate in the present-day congregation. It has its roots in Scripture, and it is not as confusing.

Clues to this alternative come from multicultural communities that make decisions through processes that are very different to a parliamentary process. Careful conversations take place before action is decided. Options are wisely considered. The increased participation of women and young adults in the leadership of the church has led to a significant number of people wanting a more collaborative rather than combative or adversarial way of making decisions. They recognize that a divided community eventually falls.

The case for using a fresh approach for making decisions is getting urgent because:

  • 95 percent of Americans agree with the statement: “People on opposite sides of an issue demonize each other so severely that finding common ground seems impossible.” 
  • 75 percent of Americans agree with the proposition that we should give moderate voices more emphasis and “stop letting the people on the extreme ends of the issues dominate the discussion on important issues.” (Research released at the Q Conference)

Thankfully, there is a better way to deal with these realities! A consensus-building approach can assist a congregation or organization to discern the will of God for its life in ways that are inclusive and consistent with Christian values by:

  • creating a respectful environment where people are able to name what is important for them; 
  • assisting everyone to have a full understanding of the issues and the implications of their decisions; 
  • collaborating to generate better options and helping participants come to a place; where they can accept the views of the majority even if they are not their first choice 
  • allowing people to know that they have been heard and taken seriously.

In short, this new process provides a credible Christian witness in the world even when considering complex issues.

Further, we believe that church leaders want a new way of making decisions—a way that honors diversity, respects all participants, is collaborative, builds a sense of real community, and uses time wisely. What is lacking is a step-by-step guide and training that assists leaders to articulate their experience and vision; how to prepare for an alternative way of decision making; and the meeting procedures and tools that organizers can use to build consensus and make decisions they can implement. We step into that void with a process that has three distinct phases:

1. Information phase
2. Deliberation/consideration phase
3. Decision phase.

Through various methods, including small groups, these phases create spaces where listening, creativity, respect, vulnerability, and collaboration are fostered and expressed. Robert's Rules tend to be more condensed and focused on the decision phase. It gets confusing when used to generate fresh ideas.

Christians deserve a new way of making decisions in their congregation and throughout the system that connects the congregations into judicatory decision-making. They yearn for a way that honors diversity, respects all participants, is collaborative and strengthens community. Many churches around the world have changed their business procedures away from the parliamentary style because of the damage that it was doing to their life. They have developed processes that create a healthy culture that is consistent with Christian values.

Can we do anything less? Please comment below with stories, good and bad, from your church experience about how important decisions get made.  Do you follow parliamentary rules or have you switched to a different process when considering significant strategy, changes or opportunities?

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