Consensus decision-making was adopted by the 1994 National Assembly as the norm for meeting procedure in all councils of the Uniting Church (congregation, church council, presbytery, Synod, Assembly). A Manual for Meetings replaced the previous adversarial style Standing Orders and Rules of Debate. (http://tinyurl.com/Manual-for-meetings)
Church meetings differ from secular organisations – we gather in community as the Body of Christ to discern a way forward for the Church, seeking God’s guidance and listening for each other’s insights.
The Basis of Union makes it clear that unity is expected not only in ecumenical endeavours but also in governance. Recognise these phrases from Paragraph 15? Responsibility for government in the Church belongs to the people of God by virtue of the gifts and tasks which God has laid upon them … Christ may speak to the Church through any of its councils …
It is the task of every council to wait upon God’s Word, and to obey God’s will in the matters allocated to its oversight … Each council is to heed the other councils, so that the whole body of believers may be united by mutual submission in the service of the Gospel.
Meeting procedures themselves can provide a pathway for waiting on God’s guidance and Christian community is enriched as we discover together a way forward for the Church.
What does consensus mean?
Consensus means seeking a common mind about the wisest way forward for the Church.
It is a prayerful process, seeking to discern God’s will; hence meetings incorporate intentional community building including worshipping together. Decisions are made without voting through genuine listening dialogue, being respectful and empowering of all entitled to participate. We’re not defending a particular point of view in order to triumph over others losing their argument; rather we’re seeking together to discern God’s way forward for the Church – waiting for that moment of grace in discovery together.
A proposal may progressively change during debate, as the meeting indicates warmth or coolness towards suggested variations. An outcome may be very different from what was previously anticipated, when openness to fresh insights and the Holy Spirit’s guidance permeates a meeting.
Consensus decision-making requires an attitude of mind and heart, not just adherence to another set of standing orders and rules of debate.
Greater openness to hearing different perspectives, not just defending a pre-determined position against all odds. Greater ownership of decisions (compared with formal procedures where a simple majority ‘pass a motion’ whereby merely one more than 50 per cent can decide policy).
Greater confidence in participation, especially by those who previously felt disadvantaged by procedures: indicator cards help to empower those for whom speaking in a meeting is daunting. Strengthening Christian community as trust and respect are nurtured.
Many UCA members have not yet read A Manual for Meetings after all these years. Some councils persist with formal procedures (perhaps cosmetically modified) while declaring it ‘consensus decision-making’.
A crowded agenda is not conducive to careful discernment when considering major issues. Venues may need changing to enable participants to sit in small groups (a chairperson may invite conversation or prayer between three or four neighbours during deliberation).
Chairpersons carry a heavy responsibility; careful training and meeting experience enable the best from consensus procedures. Coloured indicator cards are not voting cards, but when used appropriately provide an avenue for expressing opinion which helps a meeting move towards a consensus outcome.
The world is watching
Since the UCA took this dramatic step 21 years ago, our Manual for Meetings has been the model guiding changed procedures now adopted in the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Conference of Reformed Churches, and several members churches of these ecumenical bodies across the world. The Christian principles behind consensus decision-making are widely affirmed.
How can we sharpen our practices in Australia so UCA meetings are attuned to maximising the values and opportunities at our disposal?
By Jill Tabart
Follow up: Councils of the Church can access training in consensus procedures through the Centre for Theology and Ministry: email@example.com