Elders sit in many meetings. In them we make decisions, have conversations, and evaluate programs. The basic process we use in our meetings comes from our parliamentary system, Robert’s Rules of Order. No church I know uses this in its purest form. In fact, most churches have other ways to get things done and hold conversations. Some involve not meetings at all. There are discussions over back fences and in Tim Horton’s (I am Canadian). Decisions are made without ever having a formal meeting and a motion on the table. Communities have many differing process to get things accomplished.
Process is simply the way we move a community – hopefully forward – in our life and service of the Lord. The processes we use can hinder or encourage, develop unity or create discontent, lead to decisions or impasses. The processes can be formal or informal. The processes can be clearly stated and embraced, or undisclosed and decided by default. Nothing happens without some dynamic process at work. Whatever the process we use, the best ones always involve ways of respecting people, embracing a community, making decisions and most importantly submitting to the leadership of Christ.
Here are some thoughts about process that come to mind.
1. Every good process respects the people involved. People need to be honoured for gifts they bring, the insights they have and the covenant obligations they carry. People need to be respected as image-bearers of God. Bypassing or excluding people in their responsibilities, degrading their contributions, undermining their contributions will make a process less effective in the long haul.
2. Every good process demands that the participants commit to respect others in it and the community which engages it. While this is often assumed, it is not always so. This does not mean that people are not flawed or that communities don’t limp along in confusion and error. These things are evident more than we like to see. Good process recognizes people as loved by God in Christ who are called to live in community as servants of our Lord Jesus. Good process demands that people respect other participants and honours the community in which Christ dwells.
3. Every good process is designed according to the outcomes desires. A brainstorming process is designed to put ideas on the table. A debate over a motion is designed to reach a majority decision. If we wish to reach consensus we need yet another process that is understood by the participants.
4. Every good process needs to include a way of listening to the voice of God. If Jesus is Lord listening to the leadership of Christ is an obvious requirement. How we do this may vary. The way of wisdom, the way of discernment, or the way of prayer evoke different images in our mind about the way of listening. Different moments in community life may lead us to use different ways.
I believe that the work of the elders can be enhanced by deliberately using different processes in our meetings. Let me mention a few and I encourage others to add to the list.
1. Robert’s Rules.
Robert’s Rules come from the parliamentary system in which motions are made, debated, and then voted on. Usually, majority rules. I have found this process to be necessary and useful. It is necessary for decisions to have legal status. It is useful because it focuses debate on the motion can lead to more efficient decision making. I have the following cautions in the context of the church:
a. There are two ways we fail to respect people:
i. We fail to consult people in the areas of their responsibility. The people who are engaged in ministry and who because of their engagement have particular insight and “ownership”, need to be engaged.
ii. We take over decision responsibility that has been given to a working group or person. Empowering people to act requires leaving authority and responsibility in their hands.
b. Robert’s Rules foster debate for and against a motion. It is not designed to foster the development of consensus.
c. Robert’s Rules are not designed to foster prayerful listening to God, discernment processes that include times of silence, or a discussion on the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture. For these things to take place, we need to break out of the pattern of debate and into another process.
2. Brainstorming Process
This process is particularly useful to generate and organize various ideas that float about the council room. Using sticky notes and following the established rules, this method gives people freedom to explore options in the development of community life and ministry. I have found this to be extremely useful in few particular ways.
a. When new ideas need to be put on the table to generate fresh engage in the call of the church to serve Christ.
b. When ideas circulating in the community/ council need to be put on the table for discussion and consideration but are not at the stage of decision making.
c. When ideas need to be organized as a community/ council, brainstorming methods give a visual organizational tool that invites the participation of all members.
d. Using some system of evaluating, all members can participate in prioritizing ideas.
e. When used in combination with a process that discerns the key driving ideas and the key leverage points we can focus our activities on activities that genuinely move the community forward.
There are a few cautions. First, because many communities tend to risk adverse, the edgy ideas often get sidelined. This can be problematic because these ideas are also the ones that challenge the community to go where they have not gone before. Risk is required to embrace new challenges. Second, the brainstorming process is not designed to foster prayerful listening to God, discernment processes that include times of silence, or a discussion on the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture. For these things to take place, we need to break out of the pattern of debate and ask a new set of question. This can be done. There is room for this but needs to be done with some intention.
3. Discernment Process
This is usually a form of the Ignatian discernment model. It has a few stages. Later I hope to write something more concrete on this kind of process. (unless someone reading this would like to) Meantime here are a couple links discussing such processes:
What is particularly helpful is the deliberate desire and focus on discerning the will of God and the desire to submit to it. It tries to remove the “I want” from the conversation. Because the constant question is “what does God desire?” this process demands a willingness to set aside our desire. The communal process means that the outcome is based more on developing unity in our call to serve Christ than debating difference.
Here too there are some cautions:
a. Not every decision requires a discernment process. As James would say if you see your brother or sister in need and do not give to them according to their need, you are not obeying God.
b. Sometimes “God-language” can be manipulative. Some people can be skilled at using their authority and knowledge or guilt and shame to manipulate others into silence. Difference can then be understood as disobedience to God.
c. This process can be personally demanding. If we are inadequately prepared (usually carrying many unresolved emotionally demanding issues), personal anxiety gets in the way of the process.
4. Accountability Process
There is a difference between making a decision, deciding on direction, and holding people or groups of people to account for their faith, life and/or work. When committees and persons report, we need ask a set of questions. The real question is: are they doing the work they were asked (called) to do? Answering the question begins with the mandate of the committee or the tasks. It then asks: are they doing their job? It then wonders, is it being done in a way that enhances the ministry of the community? And finally wonders, what do we need to do (support, decisions) to make this person or ministry more effective? We do not do the person’s work, or take over a committee’s responsibility.
Evaluation processes are part of the accountability process. Pastor Church Resources of the denomination is looking to develop appropriate ways of accomplishing this for the pastors / employees of a congregation. These are important and useful.
There are always cautions:
a. All criticism is destructive. Construction only happens after the criticism. Criticism desires change. Change is hard. How we approach these matters of accountability can make a big difference.
b. Under the name of accountability, we sometimes wish to change the vision or mandate. This is unfair. Just because we do not like the outcome does not mean we did not ask the person to do it or provide the original vision. If the problem is with the mandate, don’t focus on the person.
Every process has its opportunity and its limitations. Choosing an appropriate process is one of the tasks of leadership. The way we do things is important. So often we fall into our default approach without considering alternatives. Yet we can accomplish much more by deliberately considering the way we seek to work through the matters that come before us. If you are a person with particular leadership responsibility in council, I encourage you to learn more about the various processes available for work of the church.
May God bless you in your call.