And what if that group isn’t a corporate board or a city council, but people from a church — people who can debate, but also worship and pray and study the Bible together, who may be asked to look in the eyes of someone they dislike or distrust and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.”
The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is trying to figure out what to say to the denomination about how to make decisions — how it will work through controversies itself, and what it has learned that others might want to try. At the task force’s most recent meeting, Oct. 15-17, Vicky Curtiss, a pastor from Iowa, put forward a one-page first draft of a paper regarding “modes of discernment and decision-making” — and the initial responses she got (for starters, that she was “courageous” to put something in writing for the group to consider) gave some insight into what task force members are thinking.
In a snapshot view, the task force has been talking about whether to switch from parliamentary procedure to other ways of reaching decisions — approaches that rely less on formal motions and rules and more on finding ways to let each person speak and be heard, in the hope that the process won’t stifle minority voices yet would lead the group to a common sense of direction.
To some extent, those kinds of approaches are already in use in some places — in session meetings in some congregations and, increasingly, in other denominations around the world.
“Many churches yearn for a governance structure which is less politicized, and more closely interlaced with the spiritual life of the church — which is not ‘business’ so much as it is community-building and spiritual discernment,” wrote Eden Grace, a Quaker and a member of a World Council of Churches commission that’s exploring alternate forms of decision-making.
Grace, in a paper the task force considered at its meeting, wrote that “discernment is the seeking of God’s will in a matter, not simply a good decision from a pragmatic perspective. It is inviting the spiritual dimension into our business, and opening ourselves to God’s perspective.”
As the PC(USA) well knows, “many American denominations are faced with high-stakes, highly controversial issues which threaten to divide the entire church,” Grace wrote. “People tend to have already made up their minds on questions of this type, and the work of the assembly delegates becomes focused on defeating the opponent. No matter which side wins the vote, the atmosphere of discord and division in the church increases. No learning takes place in the debate.”
In the World Council of Churches, Orthodox representatives have issued a “pressing call” for the council to use something other than Robert’s Rules of Order, for “a process which is less likely to violate their conscience as a numerical minority in the Council,” Grace wrote. In exploring this, “the WCC has begun to pay much closer attention to what Christians from non-European cultures have been saying all along, that the parliamentary model of church governance is not self-evidently the most democratic form . . . We have heard the testimony of Christians from Africa, Latin America and Asia about communities which carefully gather the wisdom of all participants, and which resist the efficient proceduralism of majority rule.”
Curtiss said she’s been careful not to describe approaches such as these as “consensus” decision-making — and several task force members said that word also makes them a little nervous.
Gary Demarest, the task force’s co-moderator, said he heard concern in three presbyteries that “consensus means that anything goes” and “that it’s a way of avoiding making any decisions, saying any `Yes’s or No’s.’” The idea that “consensus is compromise, and compromise is bad, is in the air,” said John Wilkinson, a pastor from Rochester, N.Y.
There will be times when there’s so much disagreement that consensus isn’t possible, said Barbara Everitt Bryant, a research scientist with the University of Michigan School of Business. And the task force has not yet decided to switch from parliamentary procedure. In some quarters of the denomination, “there is a conclusion that we are throwing Robert’s (Rules) out,” but “we have not said that,” said Mary Ellen Lawson, stated clerk and associate for administration in Redstone Presbytery.
Curtiss said that what she’s after is not one particular method, but attentiveness to God as the task force does its work, so “there’s some freedom to move where the Spirit is leading us.”
What did people think?
“To say anything against this sounds like we’re against motherhood and apple pie,” said Mike Loudon, a pastor from Florida. “Something doesn’t sit right, though. I keep thinking, `Where’s the centrality of Scripture’ . . . rather than sitting in a Quaker meeting speaking as we feel the spirit move.”
Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Seminary in New York, said she doesn’t want to give the idea that “the process has saving powers in itself.” The church needs to make it clear “this is subsidiary advice, not the means by which the church cures itself of the things that are the matter with it.”
But José Luis Torres-Milán, a pastor from Puerto Rico, said he’s open to ways of making decisions that build community — because in Hispanic congregations, “we talk, we share our lives, we think that’s important.” Following Robert’s Rules “has the tendency of splitting the community into winners and losers,” Torres-Milán said. “”To a certain extent it hasn’t worked for us.” The issues the national denomination fights about aren’t always those most on the hearts of Hispanic Presbyterians, he said, and “we’re not taken into consideration in many places in the decision-making.”
Mark Achtemeier, who teaches at the University of Dubuque Seminary, argued for finding a way to give these alternate forms of decision-making some “theological fire-power” — to tie them to what the Bible says about resolving disputes and seeking God’s will, saying if that could be done the task force could possibly speak “a biblical and prophetic word to the church.”
In Presbyterian history, “the use of Robert’s Rules around certain contested issues in the life of the church has resulted in situations of majority opinion being imposed on minorities that are in passionate opposition and has led to endless cycles of destructive conflict,” leaving no one satisfied, Achtemeier said.
And it’s not just in the U.S. In Korea, disputes have led to the creation of dozens of Presbyterian denominations, said Jong Hyeong Lee, a pastor from Chicago.
If the task force wants to push for change, it needs to come up with a theological description of why the denomination has traditionally used parliamentary procedure, why it isn’t working, and how the other methods being suggested connect with the Reformed tradition, said Scott Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. Otherwise, people will think “these are Roman Catholic tools” or “a Quaker methodology,” he said. “We need to tie this to our own tradition more explicitly” before asking people to consider trying it out, Anderson said.