Making Communal Decisions
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
Marisa Guerin, PhD – July 30, 2018
I remember being engaged once to facilitate the Assembly of a men's religious congregation that wished to make a decision on a question that, apparently, had been on their agenda for TEN YEARS, without resolution! It involved the closure and sale of a much-loved ministry and property. Needless to say, I approached this work with some apprehension. As it happened, the timing of the meeting, the determination of the leadership, and maybe the process support I provided, all converged to make this possible. They were relieved -- as was I.
This may have been an extreme case, but it wasn't unusual for client groups to seek my consultation to help them get “unstuck” on a tough decision that had to be made – often, one freighted with emotions and history. Like many other nonprofit, religious, and voluntary organizations that highly value harmony, these groups found it difficult to navigate through conflicting views, priorities, and politics. And just to add to the complexity -- sometimes the very process being used to make a decision became the subject of contention. (When that happens, it is most likely a displaced expression of the underlying issue, but nevertheless it adds yet another layer of conflict, enough to make you pull your hair out.)
Does that sound like your folks?
What might help?
Depending on the history of the issue and the group, there could be a lot of ways to proceed; there’s definitely no one easy answer. It may be useful, though, to have some idea of the range of options available – so I’m focusing this post on some methods of decision-making in groups, including the ones often favored in Spirit-led settings.
Luckily, many kinds of decisions in organizations are routinely made by one authorized person or department, ideally at the lowest appropriate level, usually after some form of consultation. That’s the default mechanism for lots of minor decisions, as well as issues requiring specialized expertise; it’s helpful and a service to the whole. We can call that baseline method “decision by a legitimate authority”.
But there are times when communities, congregations, and voluntary organizations that place a high value on unity, inclusion and collaboration are faced with decisions that really must reflect the will of the whole or the leading of the Spirit in the body. In such cases, they seek methods that give everyone voice, even if there is a formally designated leader.
Voting and its cousins – parliamentary procedure and reference to formal Bylaws or Constitutions – are perhaps the most common methods that groups use to arrive at a decision after it has been sufficiently discussed. Voting is not a bad option to have available, especially if other approaches fail. Most people in democratic societies buy into the fairness of a majority vote, and it is especially helpful if the group needs to elect individuals from among a pool of candidates, or if a choice must be made between irreconcilable options, or if they’ve run out of time for deliberation and must act.
Although voting has these merits, it's still limited when it comes to fostering unity; for that reason, many groups prefer to seek a consensus. In ordinary conversation, consensus means general agreement, a conclusion that is supported by most or all of the parties. When it refers to a decision-making process, consensus is characterized by careful listening to all views and an effort to reconcile conflicting positions or minority views through creative resolution. When individuals with dissenting views express willingness to stand aside in favor of the emerging general agreement, groups can establish a consensus. In that case, all parties agree to give verbal and actual support to the decision that is being made, even if it were not someone's preferred outcome.
You may recognize that an informal version of this process is very common in relatively smaller, collaborative groups, including families. I'm from a big family of siblings and "niblings." (I like that gender-neutral word for nieces or nephews; thanks for introducing it to me, JP! ). When a large bunch of us are spending a summer vacation week together, we get quite practiced in the methods of figuring out plans for dinner together that can accommodate our "foodies", the meat-and-potatoes folks, the allergic people, children, and those of us (ahem) who really don't care as long as it is preceded by gin and tonics.
As you can imagine, the goal of consensus requires fall-back methods in case it can't be reached. For organizational groups that are aiming for consensus but find the way blocked, then decision by voting or by legitimate authority may have to be the fail-safe. For my family, good fall-backs include taking turns with who gets to decide, or avoiding the process altogether by referencing tradition (as in, "If it's Monday, it's the place with the great dance band").
But some groups go further than consensus on the path of working-through decisions to unified resolution. An approach for deliberative groups that is becoming increasingly common among religious communities during their Chapters and Assemblies and that is used by others in faith-based settings is the method known as discernment, sometimes called contemplative dialogue.
How is discernment different from consensus? Discernment in secular vocabulary means the ability to see and understand people or situations clearly and intelligently. From a faith perspective, discernment refers to the seeing that is a gift of the Spirit, a grace that can flow from openness to God’s will. It requires trust in others and in God, and a patient willingness to be in a place of “holy indifference” to the outcome, while simultaneously carefully attending to how the Spirit is moving in one’s personal experience, emotions, realities, and in scripture. It is closely related to what Friends in the Quaker tradition call “sense of the meeting”, or the leading of God. (* Really good resource for this listed below.)
When a community uses discernment as a method, they are less “making a decision” than they are “being led to a decision”. Discernment isn’t about negotiating support for a position or arguing persuasively. There are numerous kinds of large-group discernment practices which I will not describe in detail here, but all of them have to do with removing egos from center stage, and jointly seeking the wisdom of God as one is given to know it. And here’s the interesting thing: the more the journey of discernment has been deep, prayerful and dialogic, the more listening and creativity it evokes ---- the more likely the decision will appear, at the end of the process, as a single obvious option that makes sense for the whole.
I am aware, however, that to some, this feels like an abrogation of their right to a voice in decision-making, as one may register when casting a vote. This particular resistance to discernment processes comes from a confusion between choices and decisions, a distinction I was taught years ago by friend and mentor Br. Joseph Schmidt FSC.
When I have a choice to make, I select between options; for example, shall I stay in my home as I age, shall I move in with a relative, or shall I sign up for a continuum-of-care senior residence? A decision, on the other hand, may or may not involve a choice – but it does require conscious assent and commitment to the path that has been decided upon.
The very process of discernment is such that what may initially appear as choices are gradually re-understood in newer or larger contexts. From the perspective that emerges, the path of wisdom becomes clear. Those options that don’t find their way into the final decision are not dismissed, but rather have their opportunity to be considered, and they are either incorporated into the result, or they are respectfully laid aside as the journey continues. **
In any case, the result of contemplation and discernment is usually a path, a plan, an awareness, a clear view. It may not be a choice, per se, but it still requires the active intentionality that the word decision implies. The community must commit to its decision, even if it is emerging as the only right path for them.
So here are some questions to ask when a group needs to make a decision on an important issue: Is it substantial enough to warrant the work and the time needed to achieve consensus, or is a more expeditious method fine? Does the issue actually lend itself to eventual consensus? Does it represent a call for discernment of God’s will? Will the pressure of real-world consequences allow enough time for process of discernment?
It helps to be forgiving and flexible. If you try for discernment or consensus but it doesn’t seem to be working, be willing to negotiate, or compromise, or vote, or exercise legitimate authority to resolve the issue. The need to shift to one of these methods may be inherent in the issue, not a judgment on the group’s commitment to unity. Try to be at peace with the imperfection of “good enough”... it's our human reality.
You can see how important it is to provide time, calm, protected space, and generous patience if the hope of the group is to make a decision together! It is worth the investment.
* I highly recommend the little pamphlet titled “Beyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting” By Barry Morley, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #307 (1993) https://pendlehill.org/learn/pamphlets-books
** Also relevant: My blogpost entitled “The Shape of A Deliberation” -- link follows: