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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Lost Art of Consensus

Ever been in a meeting where not everyone was in agreement?

We all have. It can be an uncomfortable experience, but it's a part of living and working together in a church or other community.

What makes the difference, in such a situation, is not how we go into the meeting.

It's how we come out of it.

If we come out of the meeting with a consensus, we feel like we've accomplished something, and rightfully so.

Consensus and unanimity are not the same thing, as church consultant Susan Beaumont affirms in a noteworthy online article, "The Truth about Consensus," that's well worth clicking through to read. (More on that in a moment.)

Sometimes groups decide to set aside Robert's Rules of Order for a time, in order to make a decision "by consensus." What people mean by that vague phrase is baffling - especially because the whole purpose of Robert's Rules is to achieve consensus.

It's important to be clear, up-front, on what we mean by the word. My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines consensus as "Agreement or unity of or of opinion, testimony, etc.; the majority view, a collective opinion; (an agreement by different parties to) a shared body of views."

Consensus is closely related to "consent." Now, we all know that to give consent to something is not the same as giving wholehearted affirmation. If a father hands over the car keys to his teenage daughter, it's true he's giving consent to her using the car that evening, but he may not be wholeheartedly in favor of the idea. He may sit up late with the porch light on, anxiously awaiting her return. But Dad's given his consent, so he's not going to stand at the foot of the driveway and prevent her from backing out.

Beaumont insightfully points out that, when many people talk about achieving consensus, they're not really talking about consensus at all. They're talking about unanimity, which is different:

"True consensus is achieved when every person involved in the decision can say: 'I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.' In contrast, unanimity is undivided opinion. Everyone is in agreement on the best course of action to take. The difference is subtle but important. When we strive for unanimity, we end up taking an inordinate amount of time to make decisions. At best, innovation grinds to a halt. At worst, we create unhealthy patterns of interaction where people are pressured to acquiesce on important issues."

It's those unhealthy patterns of interaction that concern me. They can be subtle.

Setting aside Robert's Rules for alternative models of decision-making is in vogue in many parts of the church today. "Open space technology," "the World Cafe," and other modes of decision-making are popular options in presbytery meetings.

Such processes certainly have their advantages. They allow members who aren't so skilled in parliamentary procedure to voice their opinions. They allow introverts to shine. They provide highly visual polling methods that allow for reality-checks at key stages of the process. They also leave room for creative, even artistic, means of exploring very complex issues. Yet, applied unsparingly and without careful monitoring, they can also open the way to subtle manipulation of the group.

Here's how such manipulation can happen. Let's say a group suspends the rules and decides to spend some time sitting around tables talking about an issue. The moderator speaks rhapsodically about the virtues of unity, and how wonderful it would be if everyone could achieve a common mind during this interlude The instructions are that each table is to come up with a "consensus" recommendation and report it to the larger group. Let's also say that, at each table of four, there are three people who tend to favor Option A and one who favors Option B.

They get to talking, and at each table, the person who favors Option B feels very much alone. Mindful of the moderator's encouragement to strive for a common mind, the "B" person falls silent. Each table reports a decision to support Option A, and everyone marvels that the decision was made so easily.

That is, until some of the pro-B people get to talking afterwards, out in the parking lot, and realize they were not in such a small minority as they'd imagined. Had the rules not been suspended, more of them would have spoken up about it in debate, found strength in numbers, and could possibly have swayed enough pro-A people to change their minds that there would have been a different outcome. At the very least, they might have proposed an amendment or two that would have altered Option A to make it more to their liking.

The problem, Beaumont writes, is that many people confuse the meanings of "consensus" and "unanimity." When many use the word "consensus," what they're really hoping to achieve is unanimity, 100% agreement.

True unanimity is rare. It does not consist in the naysayers falling silent, because they've already heard the many voices in favor and have figured out in advance how the vote's going to come out.

Beaumont makes this helpful distinction:

"According to Larry Dressler, 'Consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. In consensus, the input of every member is carefully considered and there is a good faith effort to address all legitimate concerns.'

Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous decision, in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied. Consensus is also not a majority vote, in which some larger segment of the group gets to make the decision. Consensus is not a coercive or manipulative tactic to get members to conform to some preordained decision.

In testing for consensus you are not asking: Is this your first choice of options? Do you like this option? Does this option satisfy your personal needs? In testing for consensus you are asking: Is this an option that I can live with and ultimately support? Does this option satisfy the criteria that we have claimed as a group? Will this option adequately serve the best interest of our congregation and its stakeholders?

Simply agreeing with a decision is not true consensus. Consensus implies commitment to the decision, which means that you oblige yourself to do your part in putting the decision into action."

There's one place where I disagree with Beaumont, as excellent as her article is in every other respect. She has a singularly low opinion of majority voting as a decision-making method. Having articulated the difference between consensus and unanimity, she still views majority voting as, ultimately, a failure of consensus-building.

When consensus-building fails, she recommends four possible options:

"(1) Defer the decision...,(2) Dissolve the group...., (3) Give decision making authority to a sub-group...., or (4), Default to a majority vote."

She describes this fourth option as follows:

"The group can decide, in advance, on a point in time where consensus seeking will end. If you have not reached consensus by that point in time, the group will vote and the decision will be determined by the majority."

This, in fact, happens under Robert's Rules by either passing a motion to fix a time at which to vote (in other words, docketing a vote to take place at a particular time) or by voting to "move the previous question," thus ending debate.

But - and here's my quarrel with her reasoning - why is this sort of outcome a mere "default"?  Isn't a majority vote, following spirited debate, in fact an excellent means of achieving consensus - as that word is truly and accurately defined?

I believe it is. Consensus means trusting the group enough to be on the losing side of a vote and still support the decision.

The trend in our larger society is against consensus of any kind, to see it as a failure of one's own argument and therefore to be be resisted at all costs. It's precisely the loss of the art of consensus that is bedeviling the Congress of the United States in these days of partisan polarization.

Let's not be that way in the church of Jesus Christ. Let us remember how blessed it can be to agree to disagree. Let us honor true consensus as a mark of Christian unity.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bossism in the Presbyterian Church?

By sheer chance, searching for something else in the New York Times online archive, I came across the article reprinted below. Although it sounds like an editorial, it was located in and amongst the regular news articles. (I'm not sure newspapers made a very sharp distinction between editorial and news content back in 1896.)

The subject is "Bossism in the Presbyterian Church." The writer makes the case that the General Assembly is easily manipulated by its own staff, and that its decision-making processes make it difficult for the commissioners elected by the presbyteries to influence the outcome.

What's remarkable to me is that the argument is strikingly similar to that being advanced by proponents of the "Foothills Overtures" that will be up for consideration by this summer's General Assembly, calling for more controls on any one Assembly's power to make decisions.

But here's the thing: the author of the article, who's sympathetic to the liberal wing of the church, is complaining that it's the conservatives who benefit from the way the Assembly does things! (This is the polar opposite of the situation with this year's Foothills Overtures, which have been advanced by disaffected conservatives who are upset with the Assembly's social-justice pronouncements.)

The "bossism" charge is, of course, an allusion to New York City's notorious Tammany Hall political machine, then in its full manipulative glory. The Assembly's then-Stated Clerk, the Rev. W.H. Roberts - who served in that post for 36 years - is cast in the role of Boss Tweed.

The issue in question is the notorious Briggs Case, by which an earlier Assembly had judged Professor Charles Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York a heretic, on account of his un-fundamentalist approach to scripture (Briggs was a noted professor of Old Testament; the "Brown-Driver-Briggs" Hebrew lexicon, of which he was a principal author, is still in wide use today).

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," as the old French proverb goes.

It's been well over a century that the complaint about staff domination of the General Assembly has been raised. I suppose one could respond by saying that, 120 years later, it's high time the General Assembly made some changes!

On the other hand, one could respond by observing that this complaint is merely a perennial "sour grapes" reaction on the part of Presbyterians who disagree with decisions the General Assembly has made.

You decide.

New York Times, May 18, 1896, p. 4.

Bossism in the Presbyterian Church

Professor Charles Briggs
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meets this week at Saratoga. The result of its action will be watched with interest and some anxiety by those who dread what they consider the undue centralisation of power in the Assembly. Originally the Assembly busied itself chiefly with the broader interests of the Church: its missions, home and foreign, and its inter-denominational relations. Of late it has asserted itself more and more in matters hitherto considered the special prerogatives of the lower courts. It constituted itself a heresy court, and made manifestoes on the most abstruse topics of theology. Then, finding that its dictation was not relished by the seminaries, it attacked them and sought to dominate not only their orthodoxy, but their financial administration. Having succeeded in some measure, it has of late sought still further extension of its power. The condemnation of Prof. Briggs logically resulted in the withdrawal of Church recognition from the institution with which he was connected, and which steadily supported him. This, however, was soon seen to be of very little moment. Union Seminary continued on its way, received students under its instruction, and sent them to the Presbyteries for examination on the same basis as did the various Congregationalist, Methodist, and other theological schools. They were received or not, according to their individual opinions, without regard to the source of those opinions. The sharpest examinations failed to discover traces of heresy in them, and there seemed to be danger lest the ground gained in the condemnation of the Professor should be lost by the indorsement of the students. The conservatives hit upon a plan, which they carried through in a way worthy of the methods by which New-York has been governed politically, and “jammed through” the Presbytery of this city an apparently harmless question, addressed to the Assembly, as to what was the Presbytery’s duty in regard to the students. With the Assembly entirely under their control, it was not difficult to get an “injunction” against receiving the students.

The boycott seemed to be complete. But this was a longer step than some even of the conservatives were willing to take. They began to realize that the dominating power of the Assembly, with which they had no fault to find so long as it affected simply men with whom they did not agree, was being extended over one of their most ancient rights and privileges, the right of judgment as to the qualifications of candidates for the ministry as well as authority over ministers. Were the Assembly a continuous body, or had it even as much of continuity as Congress, it would be different. It is, however, in fact a popular convention, largely composed of men, both ministers and laymen accustomed to rule, of procedure, and absolutely at the mercy of skillful tacticians, as has been repeatedly evident in the past few years. Some of the strongest conservatives in several Presbyteries, therefore, have joined hands with liberals in the right of judgment as to the qualifications of candidates for the ministry, as well as authority over them after ordination.

Stated Clerk William Henry Roberts
The situation is complicated by the peculiar constitution of the Assembly and the fact that it is largely under the control of one man. The Stated Clerk of the Assembly has by virtue of his position peculiar influence. He is in charge of the general statistics of the Church, gives notification of all action of the Assembly, is Secretary of all hold-over committees, and in general has to do with everything and everybody. The present Stated Clerk Is the Rev. W. H. Roberts, D.D., of Philadelphia. He has magnified his office. For several years he has carefully manipulated the different Assemblies. He has selected the Moderators and then acted as their adviser. He has nominated the committees, drawn up the legislation, pulled wires for his favorite benevolences, let recalcitrant seminaries and unruly Presbyteries feel the weight of his displeasure, and in general comported himself exactly as any political boss.

Here is really the most serious element in the situation. Natural conservatism is amenable to influence and increasing knowledge. Bossism allows no influence of any kind. The Presbyterian Church is a great power in the land, in its wealth, its education, its intelligence. If it could during the next two weeks throw overboard the influences that have been checking it, and declare for the right of men to do their own thinking and come to their own conclusions, untrammeled by ecclesiastical bosses, it would be a great thing for the Church.

(Photos are not from the original Times article.)