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By the time a vote is coming before a congregation, most church’s leaders can’t really afford a “no” vote. Here’s how to treat your members fairly while making sure you don’t get stuck with a “no” you can’t afford.  

The Few Congregational Votes

Congregational votes are not that common in the Christian Reformed Church. With our council-led polity, votes on most issues will be done by the council, not the congregation. But there are several occasions when a congregational vote is required. Most church bylaws require a vote on the annual budget, council nominations, major building projects, church disaffiliation, merger, or closure, and, possibly, calling a pastor. 

What all of these have in common is that by the time a vote is held, a lot of work has already gone into a recommendation. Preparing budgets and discerning pastor candidates can take months. Laying the groundwork for a good building project can take years. And a recommendation as consequential as merging with another church doesn't materialize overnight. 

With all of these kinds of issues, the church’s council has invested a lot of time in prayer and discernment, and what they really want from a congregational vote is affirmation of that work. Anything less than a decisive yes will likely undermine the confidence of leaders and sap the joy of their work. 

Find Other Ways to Listen

Fortunately, votes are not the only way to hear what your members are thinking. For instance, Thrive often recommends that churches host a version of a Next Steps listening circle before major congregational votes. A listening circle is a structured small group where each person is invited to offer reflection on a proposal or recommendation.

It can work like this. Rather than present a finished proposal and ask your congregation to “take it or leave it” by voting “yes” or “no,” share with your congregation a solid draft of a recommendation. Discern and prepare the recommendation as thoroughly and prayerfully as you normally would, but when you present it to the congregation, let them know you are still open to changes and that a vote will come only after you’ve given members a chance to provide feedback. 

Then, at the same time you present the draft of the recommendation, invite congregants to sign up for a listening circle. Thrive has training and scripts to help you design and use listening circles helpfully. The feedback from the listening circle should be collected well before a congregational vote so that the insights shared can be addressed by the council before the final vote is taken. 

Keep More Options Open

Hosting listening circles like those described above can reveal to the council places where there may be confusion about or resistance to the proposal. Equipped with this information, the council has options that would likely not exist if all they’d done is called a congregational vote. 

For instance, if the council believes the church is too divided for the vote to pass, it may be able to postpone the vote and work to build more unity. If the council learned that the original recommendation was unclear or confusing, it can clarify that ambiguity. If the council learned that their recommendation will bring unintended consequences, it can adjust the proposal to mitigate those risks. 

The point is, if you’ve listened first, you have options to adjust course. But if you merely take a vote, you may find yourself stuck with results that are hard to live with. 

Other Virtues of Listening Circles

There are some other benefits to using listening circles in this way. 

  • The Next Steps listening circles, especially, help people hold grace and truth together while they talk about potentially divisive issues. 
  • Whereas a survey can sometimes flatten or reduce people to their position on an issue, the circle tends to give a much more complex and nuanced picture of where people are coming from and how they’re seeing an issue. 
  • Finally, a good circle script will ask participants to reflect on how they want to treat each other and how they want to relate to God while they talk about the issues. This allows for healthier interaction that encourages your church to grow as a community while discussing difficult topics. 

Interested in Learning More? 

To learn more about how Thrive can help your church improve decision-making procedures and incorporate listening circles into the life of your church, contact us at [email protected] 


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