by Eden Grace
This is a talk presented to Amesbury Council of Churches Annual Meeting, held at Holy Family Roman Catholic Parish in Amesbury. Massachusetts. on January 19, 2003.
Five times over the last seven years, the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly and its Presbyteries have been asked to vote on whether “self-affirming homosexuals” should be ordained. Twice a ban has been approved, once the ban has been rescinded, and twice the matter has been postponed because it was so divisive. In each case, the decision was made by very narrow margins. Immediately after each vote, press conferences by representatives of the various positions within the church either praised or decried the decision. The losers spoke about how they would organize in order to win the next round of voting. All agree that these votes threaten to divide the denomination. Some despair that the church will ever reach a decision which produces a spirit of unity. One leader remarked, “There is a great weariness in the church.” This past summer, the delegates approved a year of prayer on the issue, rather than sending yet another resolution to the Presbyteries. Yet numerous legal cases continue in ecclesiastical court, and undoubtedly the next General Assembly will be faced with resolutions to reinstate the ban.
The Presbyterian Church USA is not unique. I tell this story not because I intend to speak about the issue of homosexuality, but to illustrate the problem facing all our church and ecumenical organizations. Many Christians are yearning for a better way to make decisions. Can Christians discern, rather than legislate?
Christians in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a system of church governance based on parliamentary law or Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert first published his rules in 1876 as a way of increasing transparency, orderliness and democratic participation in civic and religious organizations. Until he standardized a set of procedures, each organization had its own methods of determining the will of the majority, and it was often very difficult for anyone but the most experienced insiders to participate. Majority rule — as the foundational concept of fairness and legitimacy — runs deep in the psyche of western democracies. It is certainly preferable to many of its alternatives. Yet Christians are now becoming convinced that there might be an even better way. Even churches such as the Presbyterian Church USA, which has historically been highly identified with its system of majority rule, is now crying out we can not go on this way — it will tear our church apart! So what are the many dissatisfactions Christians are experiencing?
As the PCUSA example illustrates, many American denominations are faced with high-stakes, highly controversial issues which threaten to divide the entire church. People tend to have already made up their minds on questions of this type, and the work of the assembly delegates becomes focused on defeating the opponent. No matter which side wins the vote, the atmosphere of discord and division in the church increases. No learning takes place in the debate. The outcome produces self-righteous winners and scheming losers, and leaves church leaders wringing their hands and dreading next year’s assembly. These debates are indeed tearing denominations apart.
Yet even in much less controversial matters, at the congregational as well as denominational level, the model of debate and vote is polarizing and conflictual. Indeed, it is designed to be conflictual, to funnel all ideas and contributions into the categories of either “for” or “against” the motion. Churches find themselves polarized rather than galvanized by their most significant items of business.
Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, spoke these words in his report to the Central Committee in 1999: We are deeply conditioned by “the tendency to solve a problem or conflict by establishing the dominance of one position over the other … Peaceful resolution of conflict is possible only as the win-lose matrix is being transformed into a dynamic where both sides emerge as having won.” Dr. Raiser was speaking in this context about what he called “the confrontational logic of war.” He was encouraging the churches in their commitment to non-violent peacemaking, but I was struck when I heard him that his words were equally appropriate in describing the internal culture of many Christian organizations. We too easily adopt a secular political model of winners and losers, and perhaps neglect the relevance of the Biblical model of mutually self-giving love. To quote Dr. Raiser again, “the transformation of violence into peaceful conflict resolution has to begin by questioning the deeply rooted cultural inclination to think in opposites; we must raise awareness of the dimensions of reciprocity and mutuality instead.”
Many churches yearn for a governance structure which is less politicized, and more closely interlaced with the spiritual life of the church — which is not “business” so much as it is community-building and spiritual discernment. We have a great desire to know each other more deeply through our shared commitment to the work of the church. Does our business facilitate a deepening of community? Bodies which use parliamentary procedure frequently begin and end their meetings with prayer, but these too easily become “bookends”, perfunctory prayers which have little relationship to the decisions being debated. There is no mechanism during the debate for offering prayer, pausing for silent reflection, recalling a Bible story, or inviting a hymn. Worship and business are separate realms, each with its own order. Yet many churches are asking whether Christian decision-making shouldn’t be somehow more spiritual, even if they don’t know quite what they mean by that or how to accomplish it.
The flexibility that might allow alternative modes of conducting business — like prayer or Biblical reflection — is very hard to eke out of Robert’s Rules. While our instincts might be to improve a proposal through open-ended, creative brainstorming, the rules call for speeches for or against, and for changes only through formal amendments. Many creative ideas are lost to the group because they simply can’t be formulated in terms of an amendment to the motion. Our decisions are of lesser quality as a result.
Of course, many church bodies, especially smaller ones in which the members already know and care for each other, do not use their formal rules with anything like the rigidity I’m describing here. Our instinct is always toward consensus. We want to find win/win solutions, because we know that this is what makes for healthy sustained community life. We know, without having to spell it out, when we are able to set the formal debate aside in favor of a flexible and prayerful conversation. Yet the formal rules still stand as our constitutional form of governance. Without conscious reflection on our desire for a better way, we can only progress so far. When a seemingly intractable issue emerges, we will fall back on tallying votes as the only way we know how to decide the matter.
The rules of motions and amendments, while designed by Robert to be orderly and efficient, are in fact quite difficult to learn and use. Such a complex system of rules is extremely vulnerable to manipulation and dominance. Those who know the rules well, and who feel confident in using them to their advantage, hold enormous power in the debate, and can sometimes impose their will. Outcomes can indeed be determined by procedural gimmicks rather than the substance of the matter. Those who are naturally quick-thinking, verbally persuasive, and assertive have a considerable advantage over those who tend to think longer and speak less confidently, but whose ideas might in fact be just as important. In many churches, there is a pressing desire for broader participation — of women, of young people, of lay people, and of people from a wider variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Robert’s Rules simply gives too much advantage to a small powerful elite.
As the PCUSA example illustrates, a vote which determines an outcome on a resolution can, in fact, be a far cry from a durable decision. When the minority is large, and leaves the room nursing the stinging bitterness of defeat, they are very unlikely to be committed to the decision. When they feel vanquished, they ascribe very little authority to the decision, and seek ways to undermine and overturn it. Over and over, churches find that their decisions don’t “stick”. They can’t be effectively implemented, and must be revisited again and again.
Everywhere we turn, church leaders, Assembly delegates and congregations are crying out for some other way, for “something that works!” However they may perceive the nature of the problem, there is widespread agreement that “we can’t go on this way!”
So what does a better way look like? There’s no single right answer, but most people would say they are yearning for discernment and consensus. Discernment is the seeking of God’s will in a matter, not simply a good decision from a pragmatic perspective. It is inviting the spiritual dimension into our business, and opening ourselves to God’s perspective. Consensus refers to a process whereby decisions are not made until all (or substantially all) are in agreement. This can be a totally secular process, but when Christians undertake it, they usually do so because they believe that unity is a central mark of the body of Christ. But rather than offer more abstract definitions, let me share several situations where Christians are attempting discernment and consensus.
The World Council of Churches is in the process of writing a new set of rules, of designing a better way for itself. We are doing this in response to the pressing call from the Orthodox member churches for a process which is less likely to violate their conscience as a numerical minority in the Council. I served on the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, which concluded its work last September. This Commission recommended, and the Central Committee approved, that the WCC use consensus decision-making for all its business, at all levels of governance. During this current year, a draft of new rules will be written, and the next two Central Committees will use and refine the new rules.
However, this change does not emerge from a vacuum. The WCC has begun to pay much closer attention to what Christians from non-European cultures have been saying all along, that the parliamentary model of church governance is not self-evidently the most democratic form. Many of the world’s cultures practice forms of community-based consensus building, and churches in those contexts are more and more confident in their desire to affirm those cultural patterns and reclaim them for the church. The models of leadership taught by the missionaries might not, in fact, be the best models. As the WCC has engaged in this intentional move toward consensus, we have heard the testimony of Christians from Africa, Latin America and Asia about communities which carefully gather the wisdom of all participants, and which resist the efficient proceduralism of majority rule. This is an important witness to those of us who have a hard time imagining church governance in any other form.
Many western churches and ecumenical organizations have also been experimenting with new ways of decision-making, and some have quite a long experience with consensus and discernment. This experience then lays the groundwork for change in the WCC. I recently participated in a small consultation of representatives from churches in the US, Australia and New Zealand which are all experimenting with new ways of decision-making. As a representative of the Religious Society of Friends, I was there to share our experience of more than 350 years of making decisions by the “sense of the meeting.” In Quaker process, we look for the spirit of unity in the gathered meeting as a sign of our correct discernment of the will of God. If we have not achieved that unity, we continue to wait for further wisdom. Our process is patient and relatively unstructured. It rests on a profound confidence that God does have a will for us and is earnestly attempting to communicate it, and that we can discern and obey that will if we are truly faithful to the leadings of the Spirit. It is a deeply spiritual process.
I recently learned about the model used by the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand that is much more structured that our Quaker process. At their General Assembly, they meet in dialogue groups for a large portion of the business time. Action items are presented to the plenary, then discussed in the dialogue groups. Each group submits a consensus report to a facilitation committee, which reviews the work of all the groups and reports to the plenary. If 75% or more of the groups are in agreement, the matter is declared without a vote. The facilitation committee can recommend other ways of proceeding, based on what they perceive to be the needs of the body. This strikes me as a very effective and orderly way to build consensus in a large gathering which has no prior experience together as a discerning body.
There are many other models of consensus-building, and no one right way to do it. But as Christians we share some basic principles which undergird our efforts. In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul tells us that, as a community, “we have the mind of Christ.” This is a rather extraordinary claim! Christ is resurrected and present in our community, as our leader, and our decisions can be guided by his mind. Paul says more in Philippians 2:2-4 about the marks of Christ’s mind in the community: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In 1 Corinthians 1:10, he exhorts the community: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” It seems clear that, for Paul, the Christian community is characterized by a certain quality of relationship among its members, which develops as a consequence of faithful discernment of the presence of Christ. This quality, he summarizes as unity.
Thus, from a theological perspective, there is a certain urgency to our desire to move away from polarizing decision-making in the church, and toward an experience which brings greater satisfaction and wholeness to the community. We seek more than just an integration of spirituality with leadership in governance and administration. We yearn for a shared spiritual commitment to seek unity through discernment of the will of God.
In seeking to make changes to the culture of church organizations, we shouldn’t be surprised if we are met with resistance. These are significant changes we’re talking about, and they will not be made quickly and easily. Here are just some of the fears that can be provoked by a move toward discernment-based decision-making:
- We might be afraid to let the Holy Spirit lead. Sometimes we are more comfortable when the tasks before us demand mental energy and good logical thinking, than when we are asked to let go of our rational selves and allow the presence of the Holy Spirit to move us. This loss of control over our personal style of participation can be very threatening for some people.
- We might be afraid that God will ask something hard of us. We may fear that, if we really listen to God’s will for our congregation, we would be forced to undertake demanding new ministries which will outstrip our resources. If we listen, God might radicalize us, and we’re not sure we want that. We fear loss of comfort.
- We might be afraid of the potential for emotional release by an open format prayer-based process. We don’t necessarily want to face the emotional struggles of ourselves and others. A new process might take the lid off, so to speak.
- We might fear that chaos will ensue. The Reformed tradition, in particular, values a “decent and well-ordered” process. In 1559 John Calvin declared that “in our assemblies nothing will be seen but what is decent and well-ordered”, based of course on 1 Corinthians 14:40, in which Paul advises that “all things should be done decently and in order.” For many people, “decent and well ordered” is synonymous with Robert’s Rules, and consensus is synonymous with chaos. But based on the experience of many churches that have devised well-ordered processes for discernment and consensus, I would propose that chaos will not necessarily ensue. We should not see Paul’s advice on decency and order as being in conflict with his advice to “seek the mind of Christ.” Since God is the principle of order in creation, we can trust that careful discernment of God’s will does not lead to anarchy. My own church, the Friends, can testify that discernment of the will of God does indeed produce a well-ordered community.
- We might feel that our group is too big, that it won’t work at the level of a denominational assembly, synod, or diocesan convention. A large group is indeed a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Large bodies generally need more structure to their process. Small discernment groups can form the building blocks of a consensus which grows organically within a very large gathering. The New Zealand method is particularly strong in structuring discernment in large assemblies.
- We might fear that it takes too long to build consensus, that we won’t get our business done. We may indeed not accomplish as many items of business in a meeting as we used to, but the experience of making decisions that stick, with a high commitment to implementation, can more than compensate for some perceived loss of efficiency.
- We may fear that a time-consuming process will prevent us from meeting pressing deadlines. It may sometimes happen that we simply run out of time, and must bring the discussion to a conclusion. In a legislative process, we would then put the motion to a vote, and be done. In a discernment process, we can’t simply impose a speedy conclusion. Sometimes, we must refocus our attention on interim measures which meet the time-critical need, while discernment continues on the substance of the proposal. This may indeed frustrate those who value expedient conclusions.
- Indeed, some people will feel very frustrated by the kinds of changes I’m describing. Some people stand to lose power. Most especially, those who are very adept at using the existing rules to their advantage, will be losing that edge. Former insiders may feel that they are losing their ability to control both process and outcomes. They may put up considerable resistance to change, and that resistance may come in the form of trying to poke holes or find reasons why it won’t work. Rarely will these people be able to recognize in themselves the fear of loss of power, and they pose a particular challenge for pastoral care during this process of change. It will not do to simply try to overpower their objections — the spirit of the change we seek requires that we bring even these people into the process and allow them to feel understood.
- It is easy to see how the powerful stand to lose something, but it is equally true that the historic “minority” or “victim” groups in the congregation also stand to lose something. There is a certain power in claiming to be oppressed. And of course, there is real oppression, and I don’t want to underestimate that. But a new process for the church, which seeks to listen to and respect all, and to make decisions which care for the well-being of all, will require that some people lay aside their victim identity. In the WCC, this is one of the hard things we face in the years ahead. Now that some member churches, which have for years been demanding a fairer process, have had their grievance addressed, they must give up that grievance and become fully participating members of the whole. It remains to be seen whether they are willing and able to do that!
- Likewise, groups which have fought hard for recognition and rights within the old system may fear that, as outsiders are being brought in, they will lose their hard-won position. This fear is based on a zero-sum calculation of power, such that if one constituency is gaining power, another must be losing it. Konrad Raiser calls for “an understanding of power as a resource for the life of the community which increases as it is being shared.” This is the particular challenge facing some of the women in the WCC, who fear that gains for the Orthodox mean losses for women.
- We may fear a loss of the prophetic voice, if we must make decisions by consensus. We may believe that it is only possible for a church to speak strongly on public issues when we are willing to approve those resolutions by a slim margin. This is a question which cries out for a statistical analysis of the past, to see whether in fact our most risky proclamations have been decided on a split vote. Speaking from her own experience of several decades with the WCC’s public statements, Dr Janice Love doubts whether such is actually the case. My church is another example of how a consensus process can not only reach a risky or prophetic stance, but also produce a very high commitment to that stance among the membership.
- We may fear that the process will be hijacked by a small fringe which attempts to exercise a right of veto. While consensus-building and discernment do place a high value on listening sensitively to minority voices, most consensus processes do have ways to remove a persistent and obnoxious obstacle. However, it is the experience of all who seriously attempt discernment that this emergency measure is rarely needed. The changed culture of the church makes it highly unlikely that people would engage in obstructionist behavior.
- Finally (although this is not an exhaustive list), some might fear that experimentation would be “out of order”, and that any change in the rules would violate our current rules. This form of catch-22 needs to be addressed with creativity. It is certainly true that we won’t be willing to change our formal rules until we are convinced of the new way, and we won’t become convinced until we’ve had a chance to experience it. Yet that experience can come in ways which do not violate the existing rules. A sensitive moderator can make extensive use of provisions for deliberative sessions or small groups, and only call for a vote after consensus has been achieved. A skilled consultant is often helpful in shepherding a group through a process of change, toward a new set of procedures and a new culture of work.
This last point begs the question of how we get from here to there, how we make the kinds of changes I’m describing. By now, I imagine some of you are wishing I would just give you the blueprint for a new way of making decisions. But I’m not going to offer you a specific model. That’s for you to create from within your own tradition. Rather, I will conclude with some suggestions about how to move toward a new way of being, and what spirit to cultivate in yourself and your community.
It’s helpful to make a distinction between a new practice and a new culture. Probably we are interested in changing both, but they are not the same thing. Our practice is about what we want to do. Our culture is about how we want to be. It takes time to create change in our church culture. Change in practice can be legislated, but change in culture can not. The new way must be owned by the community through its experience of the spiritual fruits of change. In a sense, you must already be doing the new thing in order to decide to do the new thing. So keeping in mind that there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, let me offer some advice that touches on both aspects — on how to work toward a new process of decision-making, and on how to cultivate the spiritual development of the decision-making body.
A particular church’s new process for decision-making should ideally emerge from the particular tradition, core values, stories and ways of doing theology and worship which form the roots of that church. This means that different denominations will approach the question of discernment differently. We have different histories, different ways of prioritizing and using our sources of faith, different ways of theologizing about the church. Rather than adopting someone else’s model, plumb the wisdom of your own community for grounding in a new process of decision-making.
As Christians, from whatever tradition, we all yearn to incorporate Christ’s living presence more fully into our lives as individuals and as a community. This should be a primary goal, rather than secondary byproduct, of any new way of being church. Worship, prayer, and a sense of the holiness of our work should ideally permeate our business.
In order for our work to be filled with the holy, we must refrain from overly structuring our process of discernment. We should use only what minimal structure we need, and seek always to leave plenty of breathing room for the Holy Spirit to move among us, and perhaps surprise us.
This freedom for the Spirit also involves freedom for different modes of working. Christian discernment should not be limited to debate. We should make room for a variety of ways of experiencing, thinking, and reflecting — through art, music, silence, liturgical symbol, creative visualization, imagination, prayer, and storytelling.
As we learn new ways, we should be willing to experiment, learn from our experience, and keep discerning ever better ways of discerning. As the Reformed tradition reminds us, the church is ever-reforming. We needn’t be sure we’ve got the whole thing worked out before we’re willing to try it and learn from our mistakes.
We must be willing to live with the questions. Not all matters can be decided at this time. Quakers sometimes work for a decade or more on difficult ethical questions before coming to a true unity. This process of searching, struggling, listening, and laboring together is tremendously fruitful for the life of the community, provided we are all committed to allowing the question to remain open until true unity is found. With a process of spiritual discernment, it will not be possible to decide every issue which comes before the meeting, but it will be possible to engage in an honest process of seeking on those issues which God puts before us.
This last bit begs a very important point. In order for discernment or consensus processes to work, the group must be committed to the process and its integrity, at times more so than to any particular outcome. The desire to move together as a community must be stronger than the desire to see my position prevail. How does that kind of selfless commitment grow? It is a mark of the culture of the community, a fruit of the Spirit. It comes from the experience Paul described in Philippians 2, which I read before. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This is not a commandment. It is a description of our rightly-ordered desire as Christians. Quakers believe that when we draw closer to Christ, we inevitably are drawn closer to each other, and will come to regard each other’s well-being as more important than our own. This spirit, obviously, can not be mandated with a new set of rules. It is essential to the success of the new rules. And it can grow only through practice of new ways of being with each other.
There are ways to encourage these spiritual fruits to blossom. One of the most easily overlooked is the importance of informal fellowship time. In order for a group to do hard discernment work together, they must also form community by knowing each other personally and having fun together. In the WCC, some of the most valuable times are spent not in the plenary hall but in the restaurant and the sauna. Each time a group gathers for business, we must intentionally remake the community through personal sharing, common prayer, and reaffirmation of our care for each other.
Test any process against the fruits of the Spirit. Is trust increasing? Do your church meetings result in the growth of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”? (Galatians 5:22-23) This is, after all, one of the purposes of the church as a community — to nurture the growth of Christian love and faithfulness. What needs to die in order for new life to grow?
If anything I’ve said tonight has spoken to your condition, I encourage you to experiment with it, to find openings where change might be possible. Pay attention to what God is doing in your community, and let it be God’s work among you. I leave you with a benediction from 1 Thessalonians: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.”
Eden was a member of New England YM until her death in 2023.
Many of Edens’s writings can be found on the website www.edengrace.org. All of the writing there is the intellectual property of the Estate of Eden Grace, which retains full copyright. Nothing on the website may be reprinted in whole or in part without written permission.
This paper was also published in Ecumenical Trends, 32:4, April 2003, pp. 1-7.