In the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley I have had the pleasure of working with a group of pastors, a retired exec, and elders to produce a deliberative process, which has as its goal the building of spiritual community through our decision making. None of us takes pleasure in seeing Christian leaders tear at each other and emerge more wounded through a deliberative process that, in effect, creates winners and losers. We perceive God wants more from us as bearers of the gospel.
The deliberative process
While many people who work through decisions in General Assembly committees speak of their positive experiences and the deepening of relationships despite difficult and emotional work, this is seldom the case for Presbyteries. At the Presbytery level the deliberative process tends to break down as people who don’t trust each other focus on achieving an outcome for a vote. As a body of Christ called to “break down the walls of hostility” (Eph 2:14), we wanted to find another way to deliberate while working without our parliamentary procedure.
At the core of our deliberative process1 is the acknowledgement by participants of the following basics:
1. Discernment about significant issues requires focus. Consequently, we address only one significant issue in a given meeting.
2. Time is God’s gift in the discernment process. We will give this issue time for presentation and discussion. An expert presents the issue, its background, and implications. This can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.
3. Each person’s voice is worthy of hearing and respect. We hold small discussion groups facilitated for one hour after lunch in comfortable spaces. The Presbytery staff randomly assigns commissioners to groups in an effort to avoid group bias as well as acquaint us with the array of voices and opinions among us.2
4. Those who have the discussions on an issue are the same people to vote. Voting is a response to hearing the Holy Spirit’s voice through listening to each other’s stories, experiences, thoughts, and informed conclusions on an issue. Furthermore, it helps with the level of group trust that no one can been “shipped in” to drop an emotional bomb on the floor to influence a vote following discussion at a previous meeting.
Small groups are the heart of our process. Facilitators meet prior to the scheduled Presbytery meeting to prepare a set of discussion questions that everyone will use. Facilitators understand their role is not to persuade, rather it is to draw out all voices on an issue and clarify for people the issue about which they are voting. Each group selects a recorder so the facilitator can focus on group dynamics. Furthermore, each group has a pre-selected “expert” to address questions of substance or points that require an informed answer. Following discussion groups, the Presbytery regroups to vote, allowing an opportunity for floor dialogue. In our experience, no additional dialogue was required. This is a welcome break from a long standing tradition of debate on the floor.
The Post-vote narrative
In a further break from tradition, facilitators meet face-to-face following the vote to compose the common story. We ask ourselves, “What is God doing here?” and seek to tell this story. The common story relates back to each church in the Presbytery the meaning of our vote by expressing the voices, celebrations, and concerns drawn out of our discussions as well as posing challenges and opportunities resulting from the vote.
In our process, we have experienced peace over issues that have traditionally been divisive. Some have come away from the experience having changed their minds on a vote, or if not, there has been a renewed appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s work among individual believers. While the vote may not go everyone’s way, we see ourselves as an imperfect body of believers more earnestly seeking God’s will and lessons for us rather than simply adding a yea or nay to the vote column. At the end of the day, we must work together in mission regardless of a vote and our process is helping to achieve this. Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will use this to bear much fruit in our Presbytery in years to come.
Thomas J. Boone, Ph.D., is pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Ala.
1 We developed this process with the valuable assistance of the David Matthews’ Center for Civic Life. We intentionally chose a non-religious organization neutral to any ecclesial agenda and has shown success in helping large communities achieve consensus on contentious issues.
2 PSL divides its 130 – 150 commissioners into six or seven groups, each meeting in a different space.