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.
What are the Downsides (Negatives) of Process-Orientation? A prolonged process can…
What are the Upsides (Positives) of Outcomes-Orientation? Arriving at a decisive outcome can...
What are the Downsides (Negatives) of Outcome-Orientation? Jumping prematurely to an outcome can...
What are the Upsides (Positives) of Process-Orientation? A thorough process can...
What might be a warning sign that we’re too far toward the process-orientation?
What might be a warning sign that we’re too far toward the outcome-orientation?
What action steps could we take that would help reinforce a lacking process-orientation?
What action steps could we take that would help reinforce a lacking outcome-orientation?
What is the big picture, greater purpose that we as leaders are trying to steer our church toward?
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.
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.