Just Decide Already! Can’t We Just Vote and Move On?

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It’s been one year since the Human Sexuality Report was released, five since its committee was convened and eight since the committee before this committee was convened. In this time, councils and classes have submitted scores of overtures, small groups have participated in hundreds of Challenging Conversations listening circles, and the Council of Delegates has met a half-dozen times to prepare for the consequential decisions looming at Synod 2022 by, among other things, calling for a year of prayer for Synod 2022

As the decision-making process continues, some may ask: is the process progressing or dragging on? Are we deliberating enough or merely belaboring the point? 

Just Decide Already

I hear regularly from folks who just want to move on. For them, the main positions are clear enough. Let’s get on to an outcome. Enough “talk” and “listening” and “dialogue,” already. Whatever outcome it is, they are ready to be done with the process of discernment. 

But I also hear regularly from folks who sense that our denominational process still lacks sufficient study or prayer or perspectives. They talk about how God could be at work in the journey, not just the destination. Rather than cut short what God might be revealing during this unsettled in-between time, they want to extend and refine the deliberative process, sensing that a good outcome will emerge from a more thorough and intentional process.

So what should we be focused on? Should we slow down, hear many voices and ensure we’re not missing anything by focusing on good process OR should we move things along, establish clarity and get on with other priorities by focusing on landing on an outcome?

Manage the Polarity: We Need Process AND Outcome

Like so many things in life and ministry, the tension between process-orientation (focusing on the discernment process and how we get to a conclusion) and outcome-orientation (focusing on just landing on the right answer and moving on) is best seen as a both/and reality rather than an either/or choice. 

For instance, healthy churches do not choose between having an inward focus or an outward focus in their ministries. They sustain both. Likewise, preachers don’t emphasize either grace or truth in their preaching, they hold both together. 

So, too, we shouldn’t choose between process and outcome. The two always require and reinforce each other. Even after an outcome is definitively achieved, a new set of decisions will soon need to be processed toward good outcomes. 

In other words, process-orientation and outcome-orientation are not choices to be resolved, they are polarities to be managed

Which Way Should We Lean?

Managing a polarity is not the same as seeking a 50-50 balance. For example, there are times when God leads a church to emphasize outward focus in their ministries, even if that means some inward-oriented ministries take a back seat for a while. And there are times when a preacher knows they must let truth be heard in ways that may unsettle and offend. But a church that only emphasized outward ministries and a preacher that only ever unsettled and offended would be failing in their respective callings. 

Rather, wise leaders assess the downsides (negative) and upsides (positive) of emphasizing or neglecting either process or outcome in any given moment. 

Are we slowing down to pay attention to God or slowing down to avoid potential pain? Are we floundering without direction or trusting that God might do something special during a season of being unsettled? There are things to be gained and lost whichever way you lean. 

Wise leaders will be aware of these dynamics and make decisions to recalibrate the church toward the upsides and away from the downsides. In some seasons and at some times, that means a strong emphasis on process. In other seasons and at other times, that means a strong emphasis on outcomes. But wise leaders are aware of the good and bad of both emphases. Wise leaders adjust their emphasis to match the needs of the moment. 

For Group Reflection

Most individual leaders and most leadership teams tend to favor one end of the polarity more than the other. Ask yourself (and your team):

  • Which do you tend to favor more: process or outcome? What is gained or lost by that emphasis?

  • Has your leadership team tended to emphasize process or outcome? How has that helped or hurt? 

  • How might you take steps to strengthen the other end of the polarity in your context?

Going Deeper: Mapping the Polarity

To help cultivate the wisdom required to manage this polarity, it can be helpful to map out the polarity as part of a group exercise. Using this chart as a guide, have your leadership team ask and answer the following questions, filling in your answers as you go along. Invite wide participation, even among those who may be inclined to the other pole. 

Part One

  1. What are the Downsides (Negatives) of Process-Orientation? A prolonged process can…

  1. What are the Upsides (Positives) of Outcomes-Orientation? Arriving at a decisive outcome can...

  1. What are the Downsides (Negatives) of Outcome-Orientation? Jumping prematurely to an outcome can...

  1. What are the Upsides (Positives) of Process-Orientation? A thorough process can...

Part Two

  1. What might be a warning sign that we’re too far toward the process-orientation?

  1. What might be a warning sign that we’re too far toward the outcome-orientation?

Part Three

  1. What action steps could we take that would help reinforce a lacking process-orientation?

  1. What action steps could we take that would help reinforce a lacking outcome-orientation?

Part Four

  • What is the big picture, greater purpose that we as leaders are trying to steer our church toward? 

Next Steps

Many leadership teams find it helpful to lay things out as plainly as this. And then pause to notice which end of the polarity your group tends to emphasize or neglect. Ask whether your context would be helped by reinforcing the other end of the pole. 

By asking these kinds of questions or going through a polarity mapping exercise, your group will be much more aware of the risks and benefits of whatever decision they’re making. You’ll understand each other and yourselves better as leaders. And you’ll be ready to respond promptly if warning signs start to appear and taking the next step will be easier. 

Learn More

For more on Polarities and their usefulness for church leaders, check out Managing Polarities in Congregations, Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson. 

For practices to reinforce fair process, consider Rush, Hush and Mush, the two questions every council must ask before making a decision, and three practices to strengthen decision-making process

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Community Builder

"Just Decide Already! Can’t We Just Vote and Move On?"

We have just done that and moved out. After 75 years I think we have been very patient. We still care but not enough to stay.

 

Community Builder

Harry,

I'm glad you still care. And leaving is a valid, if painful, outcome. But I think you'll agree, and your comment suggests, that leaving should not be done hastily. In the language of the article, leaving hastily would be too focused on "outcome" and not enough on "process." If I understand you correctly, you've been leaning into process, and have determined finally that God is calling you to leave and "move out." -sean

  This is the kind of discussion that would make Screwtape very proud indeed, particularly when directed at the issue mentioned in the first paragraph. 

Community Builder

Ralph,

Your suggestion that this article is demonic in character is a bold one. If I understand you correctly, you are concerned that too much "process orientation" would inevitably devolve into sophisticated equivocation, practically avoiding the naming and standing upon Biblically-informed conviction. If that's what you mean, then I certainly share your concern. I have seen equivocations dressed up in the language of "good process." That's partly why I wrote this article. I think that would represent a serious mismanagement of the polarity and a failure of godly leadership.

But I should say that I've also seen folks making all kinds of uncharitable and dismissive comments about their brothers and sisters in Christ who "disagree." Sometimes, those uncharitable and dismissive comments emerge because the discernment process was poor in a very specific way: there was no space for people to really name the issues that matter and why they matter. It may be that the "two sides" will have to part ways, but I think treating those you disagree with as a bogeyman, in addition to being uncharitable, also forfeits an opportunity to teach, convince and win over. I think you might be surprised how many people in the denomination are not on either "side" but actually occupy a persuadable middle. They are honestly wrestling with issues, but find it hard to connect with people who are willing to really listen to and respond to their sincere questions. They will not be persuaded by comments in online forums, but you might be surprised to discover how much they desire charitable partners in discernment. -sean

 

Am I correct by inferring that you suggest a new discussion, this time on the "process"? Me thinks this is a smoke screen to enhance a pre determined outcome. The powers that be are really asking, "does God really say......? In His Word. Do you really think that because your child has "come out" that God's clear intentions are not valid? 
I'm reminded of the scriptures where Jesus stated words "Anyone who love their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Matthew 10:37 NIV. Is that not what we're doing here? Because our children seek a path not consistent with scripture, and, because we love them, we want to change the plain meaning of scripture to suit how we feel about our children.

Please stop challenging scripture and concentrate more on our salvation, and end of our earthly life which will come soon enough.

Community Builder

Alex,

I do think it would be helpful for churches to take a look at the processes they use for making decisions. I think some churches are managing the polarity too far toward process or even equivocation (see my reply to Ralph's comment), and their churches will suffer because of it by, among other things, losing sight of the authority of scripture, as you suggest. But others are just assuming that the outcome is self-evident, that "the other side" is evil, and that there's nothing to talk about. One thing I've heard from more traditional churches that have used the Challenging Conversations Toolkit process is that it helped them notice blind spots in the ways they were or were not pastorally helping their members navigate an increasingly confusing sexual world. They realized they hadn't supported celibate gay family members; they confessed that they hadn't done anything to help each other deal with the scourge of pornography; they hadn't provided any counsel to their young people concerning cohabitation. Part of the problem, they discovered, is that they too readily assumed that "we all know; we all agree." In my experience, a good process for decision-making helps to reveal those kinds of blind spots in ways that will elevate Biblical truth and faith Christian living. -sean