When faced with a tough decision, church leaders try to arrive at the best answers possible: answers that are both Biblically faithful and pastorally wise. But sometimes, even the best answers still lead to tension or conflict in the church. When that happens, it is often because of problems not with the answer, but because of problems with the decision-making process itself.
A poor process, even if it ends in a pretty good decision, can do more to divide a congregation than a less-good decision. In fact, even the most Biblically-faithful and pastorally-wise decision, if it is poorly understood or arrived-at, can undermine a church’s mission.
Church leaders tend to sabotage their decision-making in one of three ways.
Rush: You go too fast.
In the face of a challenging decision, the anxiety in your church is likely high. Members are wondering what’s taking so long. Some people may have been thinking about and even talking about this decision for months or years, but this particular group of leaders is only taking action now. Factions in your church may believe the right answer is self-evident, even though their preferred answers contradict one another. As the tension builds, council members are eager to get past this decision, and to get on to other things. We are tempted to take whatever action seems to require the least amount of work now, even if it may produce much more work later.
When the anxiety is this high, it’s easy to rush the discernment process. You go at the pace of your most decisive leaders, leaving more reflective leaders behind. Rather than see the listening and waiting as an expression of our trust in God, we expect that God will deliver us all the insight and wisdom we need if we just set aside 30 seconds for a pre-meeting perfunctory prayer.
Wise councils gently request of each other and of their congregations, “please offer us the gift of your patience and prayers as we discern next steps.”
Hush: You fail to listen to important voices.
If you are moving too fast, you are also likely failing to listen well. Especially when a decision is complex, divisive or controversial, the council can be tempted to think the most important thing they can do is “handle this ourselves.” Then, leaning on their own insight, they huddle, arrive at the most politically-tenable solution they can imagine and then present it to the congregation in finished form.
While it is true that you’ve been ordained to make decisions, your responsibility as ordained elders, pastors and deacons also includes being an example and living out the fruit of the spirit with one another. What does this look like when making decisions that will affect the body of Christ? It often begins with listening widely, deeply and well. Three types of listening will serve your discernment well and none of them can be easily rushed.
First, listen to God. Through study, prayer and listening prayer, councils should soak in God’s Word and eagerly listen for God’s voice. Expect, equip and encourage each council member to take their own time to listen for God’s voice. If you or others in your council have not taken the time to pray and listen for God’s voice on your own before the council actually votes, it may be worth asking if you’re really ready to make a decision together.
Second, listen to each other. Take the time to invite every member of the council to speak into the question. Conventional decision-making procedures (like Robert’s Rules) make each person’s contribution voluntary. If someone wants to speak, they may. If someone doesn’t want to speak, they don’t have to. But Robert’s Rules sometimes reward and elevate the most confident and charismatic while diminishing the quiet wisdom or uncertainty of more soft-spoken leaders. Now, debates between outspoken leaders have their place. Such debates often speedily clarify some core issues and talking points. But a chairperson can help elevate all voices by periodically suspending normal debate and restricting cross-talk. In its place, the chair can clearly state a question (i.e. “What do you think of proposal X?”) then going one-by-one around the room, can invite each person to respond in turn. By restricting cross-talk, the rest of the group has the freedom to focus only on listening to one another well, without needing to react to each individual’s response.
Third, listen to affected persons outside your council (and not just the most influential and connected persons). When decisions meaningfully impact others, those people most affected deeply appreciate being listened to. Naturally, there are some limits to how many people you can listen to and how deeply you can listen to them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do any listening to those outside your council. In fact, unrushed leaders can listen to quite a few outside voices in an intentional discernment process.
Now, it is true that some leaders struggle with listening to outside voices because they believe that inviting someone to speak implies you endorse what they say. On the contrary, listening to outside voices tends to clarify your own thinking, expose potential blind spots and sharpen your wisdom. What’s more, most people are grateful just to be heard. In fact, even if the ultimate decision goes “against” their preference, those who have felt heard will be much more likely to trust your leadership and extend you the benefit of the doubt.
Mush: Your process is unclear
One of the best ways to ensure you discern at a good pace (no rush) and with sufficient listening (no hush) is to be intentional and clear up front about your decision-making process (no mush).
Too often, councils and congregations are unclear about precisely how a significant decision will be made.
Is this a decision of the full council or just the elders or deacons?
If we have a congregational vote, is it binding or advisory?
Will a majority vote of council be sufficient or are we committed to achieving consensus?
When, how and will others be permitted to speak into the discernment?
When will the decision itself be made?
What will be communicated during and after the discernment?
Councils who are anxious about the impact of a decision will sometimes leave the answers to these questions unclear or “mushy.”. However, members of your church will be far more likely to trust your decision if they know how you’re making it and what role, if any, non-council members will play in the process.
Conclusion: Some Diagnostic Questions:
So, before you proceed with your significant discernment, take time to reflect on your decision-making process. Don’t let rush, hush or mush sabotage your otherwise hard work.
How should we make this decision?
Who do we want to hear from? How will we hear from them?
How will we seek to hear from God?
How long will we take to discern? Is our anxiety driving us to impose an artificially-short or a needlessly-long time table on the process?
What should we be communicating about the process? To whom? When? How?
To Learn More:
Connect with others who are resisting rush, hush and mush by committing to praying together for our churches and denomination.