At 51-49, love loses

There’s something vaguely disturbing about the majority-rules method we Presbyterians use to accomplish much of our business.

But I hadn’t quite been able to identify what until someone from a Native American background who serves with me on a retreat center board enlightened me.


We Presbyterians — and, generally, we Americans — seem unwilling to allow a discernment process on divisive issues to continue simmering long enough to produce general acceptance of a position or solution. That process may not result in unanimity but, given world enough and time, it can produce a harmony that allows us to move forward together.


As a new member of the retreat center board, I recognized that the board did not have in place a formal succession plan in case of the death or incapacity of the monk who lives at our center and oversees its operations. So I suggested we create one. Naturally, it fell to me to write the first draft and e-mail it to the executive board for initial approval.


With a few edits here and there the document was approved. Except that the board member I mentioned earlier objected that we hadn’t sat down, looked one another in the eye, heard at length from our monk caretaker and discerned together how to proceed.


I had simply barged ahead like Larry (“Git-R-Done”) the Cable Guy, needing a one-vote majority to solve this problem. I’ve since repented and asked that at our next face-to-face gathering the whole board talk about all of this again and see where we are.


I certainly know that the pace of life today often demands quick answers and resolutions to problems. Rarely can we sit around like a no-time-limit jury and move slowly toward consensus. Instead, we live with 51 to 49 percentage decisions, creating more ill will and hard feelings, which lead to still more 51 to 49 votes. We see this in Congress, in the PCUSA General Assembly and even in Session and congregational meetings.


I’m not proposing we throw out the democratic process with its one-person, one-vote structure.


But perhaps we could find occasional times in our families, social groups and especially our churches to use a slower deliberative process, one that gives voice to all and allows us to marinate in the deep, often-subtle breathings of the Holy Spirit. In this slower process we might more fully educate ourselves about the issue we’d otherwise be rushing to vote on.


It took us Presbyterians more than three decades (depending on when you start counting) to change our constitution to allow ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. In the process we had close vote after close vote, made enemies of friends and caused enormous pain to many people. And I say that as one who favors the change we made last year.


There’s a better way. It requires that we tone down our angry rhetoric, which colors the world in black and white. It requires that we truly hear one another. It requires humility and respect for the presence of God in our midst.


Finally, it requires love. And in 51 to 49 votes, love loses.


BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at