Guided by the mind of Christ -
Amesbury Council of Churches Annual Meeting
yearning for a new spirituality of church governance
Holy Family Roman Catholic Parish, Amesbury MA
January 19, 2003
This paper is also published in Ecumenical
Volume 32, number 4, April 2003, pp. 1-7.
Five times over the last seven years, the Presbyterian Church USA’s General
Assembly and its Presbyteries have been asked to vote on whether “self-affirming
homosexuals” should be ordained. Twice a ban has been approved, once
the ban has been rescinded, and twice the matter has been postponed because
it was so divisive. In each case, the decision was made by very narrow margins.
Immediately after each vote, press conferences by representatives of the
various positions within the church either praised or decried the decision.
The losers spoke about how they would organize in order to win the next
round of voting. All agree that these votes threaten to divide the denomination.
Some despair that the church will ever reach a decision which produces a
spirit of unity. One leader remarked “There is a great weariness in
the church.” This past summer, the delegates approved a year of prayer
on the issue, rather than sending yet another resolution to the Presbyteries.
Yet numerous legal cases continue in ecclesiastical court, and undoubtedly
the next General Assembly will be faced with resolutions to reinstate the
The Presbyterian Church USA is not unique. I tell this story not because
I intend to speak about the issue of homosexuality, but to illustrate
the problem facing all our church and ecumenical organizations. Many Christians
are yearning for a better way to make decisions. Can Christians discern,
rather than legislate?
Christians in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere
are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a system of church governance
based on parliamentary law or Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert first
published his rules in 1876 as a way of increasing transparency, orderliness
and democratic participation in civic and religious organizations. Until
he standardized a set of procedures, each organization had its own methods
of determining the will of the majority, and it was often very difficult
for anyone but the most experienced insiders to participate. Majority
rule — as the foundational concept of fairness and legitimacy —
runs deep in the psyche of western democracies. It is certainly preferable
to many of its alternatives. Yet Christians are now becoming convinced
that there might be an even better way. Even churches such as the Presbyterian
Church USA, which has historically been highly identified with its system
of majority rule, is now crying out we can not go on this way —
it will tear our church apart! So what are the many dissatisfactions Christians
As the PCUSA example illustrates, many American denominations are faced
with high-stakes, highly controversial issues which threaten to divide
the entire church. 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. The outcome produces self-righteous winners
and scheming losers, and leaves church leaders wringing their hands and
dreading next year’s assembly. These debates are indeed tearing
Yet even in much less controversial matters, at the congregational as
well as denominational level, the model of debate and vote is polarizing
and conflictual. Indeed, it is designed to be conflictual, to funnel all
ideas and contributions into the categories of either “for”
or “against” the motion. Churches find themselves polarized
rather than galvanized by their most significant items of business.
Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, spoke
these words in his report to the Central Committee in 1999: We are deeply
conditioned by “the tendency to solve a problem or conflict by establishing
the dominance of one position over the other ... Peaceful resolution of
conflict is possible only as the win-lose matrix is being transformed
into a dynamic where both sides emerge as having won.” Dr. Raiser
was speaking in this context about what he called “the confrontational
logic of war.” He was encouraging the churches in their commitment
to non-violent peacemaking, but I was struck when I heard him that his
words were equally appropriate in describing the internal culture of many
Christian organizations. We too easily adopt a secular political model
of winners and losers, and perhaps neglect the relevance of the Biblical
model of mutually self-giving love. To quote Dr. Raiser again, “the
transformation of violence into peaceful conflict resolution has to begin
by questioning the deeply rooted cultural inclination to think in opposites;
we must raise awareness of the dimensions of reciprocity and mutuality
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. We have a great desire to know each other more
deeply through our shared commitment to the work of the church. Does our
business facilitate a deepening of community? Bodies which use parliamentary
procedure frequently begin and end their meetings with prayer, but these
too easily become “bookends”, perfunctory prayers which have
little relationship to the decisions being debated. There is no mechanism
during the debate for offering prayer, pausing for silent reflection,
recalling a Bible story, or inviting a hymn. Worship and business are
separate realms, each with its own order. Yet many churches are asking
whether Christian decision-making shouldn’t be somehow more spiritual,
even if they don’t know quite what they mean by that or how to accomplish
The flexibility that might allow alternative modes of conducting business
— like prayer or Biblical reflection — is very hard to eke
out of Robert’s Rules. While our instincts might be to improve a
proposal through open-ended, creative brainstorming, the rules call for
speeches for or against, and for changes only through formal amendments.
Many creative ideas are lost to the group because they simply can’t
be formulated in terms of an amendment to the motion. Our decisions are
of lesser quality as a result.
Of course, many church bodies, especially smaller ones in which the members
already know and care for each other, do not use their formal rules with
anything like the rigidity I’m describing here. Our instinct is
always toward consensus. We want to find win/win solutions, because we
know that this is what makes for healthy sustained community life. We
know, without having to spell it out, when we are able to set the formal
debate aside in favor of a flexible and prayerful conversation. Yet the
formal rules still stand as our constitutional form of governance. Without
conscious reflection on our desire for a better way, we can only progress
so far. When a seemingly intractable issue emerges, we will fall back
on tallying votes as the only way we know how to decide the matter.
The rules of motions and amendments, while designed by Robert to be orderly
and efficient, are in fact quite difficult to learn and use. Such a complex
system of rules is extremely vulnerable to manipulation and dominance.
Those who know the rules well, and who feel confident in using them to
their advantage, hold enormous power in the debate, and can sometimes
impose their will. Outcomes can indeed be determined by procedural gimmicks
rather than the substance of the matter. Those who are naturally quick-thinking,
verbally persuasive, and assertive have a considerable advantage over
those who tend to think longer and speak less confidently, but whose ideas
might in fact be just as important. In many churches, there is a pressing
desire for broader participation — of women, of young people, of
lay people, and of people from a wider variety of cultural and linguistic
backgrounds. Robert’s Rules simply gives too much advantage to a
small powerful elite.
As the PCUSA example illustrates, a vote which determines an outcome
on a resolution can, in fact, be a far cry from a durable decision. When
the minority is large, and leaves the room nursing the stinging bitterness
of defeat, they are very unlikely to be committed to the decision. When
they feel vanquished, they ascribe very little authority to the decision,
and seek ways to undermine and overturn it. Over and over, churches find
that their decisions don’t “stick”. They can’t
be effectively implemented, and must be revisited again and again.
Everywhere we turn, church leaders, Assembly delegates and congregations
are crying out for some other way, for “something that works!”
However they may perceive the nature of the problem, there is widespread
agreement that “we can’t go on this way!”
So what does a better way look like? There’s no single right answer,
but most people would say they are yearning for discernment and consensus.
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.
Consensus refers to a process whereby decisions are not made until all
(or substantially all) are in agreement. This can be a totally secular
process, but when Christians undertake it, they usually do so because
they believe that unity is a central mark of the body of Christ. But rather
than offer more abstract definitions, let me share several situations
where Christians are attempting discernment and consensus.
The World Council of Churches is in the process of writing a new set
of rules, of designing a better way for itself. We are doing this in response
to the pressing call from the Orthodox member churches for a process which
is less likely to violate their conscience as a numerical minority in
the Council. I served on the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation
in the WCC, which concluded its work last September. This Commission recommended,
and the Central Committee approved, that the WCC use consensus decision-making
for all its business, at all levels of governance. During this current
year, a draft of new rules will be written, and the next two Central Committees
will use and refine the new rules.
However, this change does not emerge from a vacuum. 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. Many of the world’s
cultures practice forms of community-based consensus building, and churches
in those contexts are more and more confident in their desire to affirm
those cultural patterns and reclaim them for the church. The models of
leadership taught by the missionaries might not, in fact, be the best
models. As the WCC has engaged in this intentional move toward consensus,
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. This is
an important witness to those of us who have a hard time imagining church
governance in any other form.
Many western churches and ecumenical organizations have also been experimenting
with new ways of decision-making, and some have quite a long experience
with consensus and discernment. This experience then lays the groundwork
for change in the WCC. I recently participated in a small consultation
of representatives from churches in the US, Australia and New Zealand
which are all experimenting with new ways of decision-making. As a representative
of the Religious Society of Friends, I was there to share our experience
of more than 350 years of making decisions by the “sense of the
meeting.” In Quaker process, we look for the spirit of unity in
the gathered meeting as a sign of our correct discernment of the will
of God. If we have not achieved that unity, we continue to wait for further
wisdom. Our process is patient and relatively unstructured. It rests on
a profound confidence that God does have a will for us and is earnestly
attempting to communicate it, and that we can discern and obey that will
if we are truly faithful to the leadings of the Spirit. It is a deeply
I recently learned about the model used by the Presbyterian Church of
Aotearoa New Zealand that is much more structured that our Quaker process.
At their General Assembly, they meet in dialogue groups for a large portion
of the business time. Action items are presented to the plenary, then
discussed in the dialogue groups. Each group submits a consensus report
to a facilitation committee, which reviews the work of all the groups
and reports to the plenary. If 75% or more of the groups are in agreement,
the matter is declared without a vote. The facilitation committee can
recommend other ways of proceeding, based on what they perceive to be
the needs of the body. This strikes me as a very effective and orderly
way to build consensus in a large gathering which has no prior experience
together as a discerning body.
There are many other models of consensus-building, and no one right way
to do it. But as Christians we share some basic principles which undergird
our efforts. In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul tells us that, as a community,
“we have the mind of Christ.” This is a rather extraordinary
claim! Christ is resurrected and present in our community, as our leader,
and our decisions can be guided by his mind. Paul says more in Philippians
2:2-4 about the marks of Christ’s mind in the community: “Be
of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one
mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard
others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own
interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you
that was in Christ Jesus.” In 1 Corinthians 1:10, he exhorts the
community: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name
of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement, and that there
be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and
the same purpose.” It seems clear that, for Paul, the Christian
community is characterized by a certain quality of relationship among
its members, which develops as a consequence of faithful discernment of
the presence of Christ. This quality, he summarizes as unity.
Thus, from a theological perspective, there is a certain urgency to our
desire to move away from polarizing decision-making in the church, and
toward an experience which brings greater satisfaction and wholeness to
the community. We seek more than just an integration of spirituality with
leadership in governance and administration. We yearn for a shared spiritual
commitment to seek unity through discernment of the will of God.
In seeking to make changes to the culture of church organizations, we
shouldn’t be surprised if we are met with resistance. These are
significant changes we’re talking about, and they will not be made
quickly and easily. Here are just some of the fears that can be provoked
by a move toward discernment-based decision-making:
- We might be afraid to let the Holy Spirit lead. Sometimes we are more
comfortable when the tasks before us demand mental energy and good logical
thinking, than when we are asked to let go of our rational selves and
allow the presence of the Holy Spirit to move us. This loss of control
over our personal style of participation can be very threatening for some
- We might be afraid that God will ask something hard of us. We may fear
that, if we really listen to God’s will for our congregation, we
would be forced to undertake demanding new ministries which will outstrip
our resources. If we listen, God might radicalize us, and we’re
not sure we want that. We fear loss of comfort.
- We might be afraid of the potential for emotional release by an open
format prayer-based process. We don’t necessarily want to face the
emotional struggles of ourselves and others. A new process might take
the lid off, so to speak.
- We might fear that chaos will ensue. The Reformed tradition, in particular,
values a “decent and well-ordered” process. In 1559 John Calvin
declared that “in our assemblies nothing will be seen but what is
decent and well-ordered”, based of course on 1 Corinthians 14:40,
in which Paul advises that “all things should be done decently and
in order.” For many people, “decent and well ordered”
is synonymous with Robert’s Rules, and consensus is synonymous with
chaos. But based on the experience of many churches that have devised
well-ordered processes for discernment and consensus, I would propose
that chaos will not necessarily ensue. We should not see Paul’s
advice on decency and order as being in conflict with his advice to “seek
the mind of Christ.” Since God is the principle of order in creation,
we can trust that careful discernment of God’s will does not lead
to anarchy. My own church, the Friends, can testify that discernment of
the will of God does indeed produce a well-ordered community.
- We might feel that our group is too big, that it won’t work at
the level of a denominational assembly, synod, or diocesan convention.
A large group is indeed a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Large
bodies generally need more structure to their process. Small discernment
groups can form the building blocks of a consensus which grows organically
within a very large gathering. The New Zealand method is particularly
strong in structuring discernment in large assemblies.
- We might fear that it takes too long to build consensus, that we won’t
get our business done. We may indeed not accomplish as many items of business
in a meeting as we used to, but the experience of making decisions that
stick, with a high commitment to implementation, can more than compensate
for some perceived loss of efficiency.
- We may fear that a time-consuming process will prevent us from meeting
pressing deadlines. It may sometimes happen that we simply run out of
time, and must bring the discussion to a conclusion. In a legislative
process, we would then put the motion to a vote, and be done. In a discernment
process, we can’t simply impose a speedy conclusion. Sometimes,
we must refocus our attention on interim measures which meet the time-critical
need, while discernment continues on the substance of the proposal. This
may indeed frustrate those who value expedient conclusions.
- Indeed, some people will feel very frustrated by the kinds of changes
I’m describing. Some people stand to lose power. Most especially,
those who are very adept at using the existing rules to their advantage,
will be losing that edge. Former insiders may feel that they are losing
their ability to control both process and outcomes. They may put up considerable
resistance to change, and that resistance may come in the form of trying
to poke holes or find reasons why it won’t work. Rarely will these
people be able to recognize in themselves the fear of loss of power, and
they pose a particular challenge for pastoral care during this process
of change. It will not do to simply try to overpower their objections
— the spirit of the change we seek requires that we bring even these
people into the process and allow them to feel understood.
- It is easy to see how the powerful stand to lose something, but it is
equally true that the historic “minority” or “victim”
groups in the congregation also stand to lose something. There is a certain
power in claiming to be oppressed. And of course, there is real oppression,
and I don’t want to underestimate that. But a new process for the
church, which seeks to listen to and respect all, and to make decisions
which care for the well-being of all, will require that some people lay
aside their victim identity. In the WCC, this is one of the hard things
we face in the years ahead. Now that some member churches, which have
for years been demanding a fairer process, have had their grievance addressed,
they must give up that grievance and become fully participating members
of the whole. It remains to be seen whether they are willing and able
to do that!
- Likewise, groups which have fought hard for recognition and rights within
the old system may fear that, as outsiders are being brought in, they
will lose their hard-won position. This fear is based on a zero-sum calculation
of power, such that if one constituency is gaining power, another must
be losing it. Konrad Raiser calls for “an understanding of power
as a resource for the life of the community which increases as it is being
shared.” This is the particular challenge facing some of the women
in the WCC, who fear that gains for the Orthodox mean losses for women.
- We may fear a loss of the prophetic voice, if we must make decisions
by consensus. We may believe that it is only possible for a church to
speak strongly on public issues when we are willing to approve those resolutions
by a slim margin. This is a question which cries out for a statistical
analysis of the past, to see whether in fact our most risky proclamations
have been decided on a split vote. Speaking from her own experience of
several decades with the WCC’s public statements, Dr Janice Love
doubts whether such is actually the case. My church is another example
of how a consensus process can not only reach a risky or prophetic stance,
but also produce a very high commitment to that stance among the membership.
- We may fear that the process will be hijacked by a small fringe which
attempts to exercise a right of veto. While consensus-building and discernment
do place a high value on listening sensitively to minority voices, most
consensus processes do have ways to remove a persistent and obnoxious
obstacle. However, it is the experience of all who seriously attempt discernment
that this emergency measure is rarely needed. The changed culture of the
church makes it highly unlikely that people would engage in obstructionist
- Finally (although this is not an exhaustive list), some might fear that
experimentation would be “out of order”, and that any change
in the rules would violate our current rules. This form of catch-22 needs
to be addressed with creativity. It is certainly true that we won’t
be willing to change our formal rules until we are convinced of the new
way, and we won’t become convinced until we’ve had a chance
to experience it. Yet that experience can come in ways which do not violate
the existing rules. A sensitive moderator can make extensive use of provisions
for deliberative sessions or small groups, and only call for a vote after
consensus has been achieved. A skilled consultant is often helpful in
shepherding a group through a process of change, toward a new set of procedures
and a new culture of work.
This last point begs the question of how we get from here to there, how
we make the kinds of changes I’m describing. By now, I imagine some
of you are wishing I would just give you the blueprint for a new way of
making decisions. But I’m not going to offer you a specific model.
That’s for you to create from within your own tradition. Rather,
I will conclude with some suggestions about how to move toward a new way
of being, and what spirit to cultivate in yourself and your community.
It’s helpful to make a distinction between a new practice and a
new culture. Probably we are interested in changing both, but they are
not the same thing. Our practice is about what we want to do. Our culture
is about how we want to be. It takes time to create change in our church
culture. Change in practice can be legislated, but change in culture can
not. The new way must be owned by the community through its experience
of the spiritual fruits of change. In a sense you must already be doing
the new thing in order to decide to do the new thing. So keeping in mind
that there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, let me offer some
advice that touches on both aspects — on how to work toward a new
process of decision-making, and on how to cultivate the spiritual development
of the decision-making body.
A particular church’s new process for decision making should ideally
emerge from the particular tradition, core values, stories and ways of
doing theology and worship which form the roots of that church. This means
that different denominations will approach the question of discernment
differently. We have different histories, different ways of prioritizing
and using our sources of faith, different ways of theologizing about the
church. Rather than adopting someone else’s model, plumb the wisdom
of your own community for grounding in a new process of decision-making.
As Christians, from whatever tradition, we all yearn to incorporate Christ’s
living presence more fully into our lives as individuals and as a community.
This should be a primary goal, rather than secondary byproduct, of any
new way of being church. Worship, prayer, and a sense of the holiness
of our work, should ideally permeate our business.
In order for our work to be filled with the holy, we must refrain from
overly structuring our process of discernment. We should use only what
minimal structure we need, and seek always to leave plenty of breathing
room for the Holy Spirit to move among us, and perhaps surprise us.
This freedom for the Spirit also involves freedom for different modes
of working. Christian discernment should not be limited to debate. We
should make room for a variety of ways of experiencing, thinking, and
reflecting — through art, music, silence, liturgical symbol, creative
visualization, imagination, prayer, and storytelling.
As we learn new ways, we should be willing to experiment, learn from
our experience, and keep discerning ever better ways of discerning. As
the Reformed tradition reminds us, the church is ever-reforming. We needn’t
be sure we’ve got the whole thing worked out, before we’re
willing to try it and learn from our mistakes.
We must be willing to live with the questions. Not all matters can be
decided at this time. Quakers sometimes work for a decade or more on difficult
ethical questions before coming to a true unity. This process of searching,
struggling, listening, and laboring together is tremendously fruitful
for the life of the community, provided we are all committed to allowing
the question to remain open until true unity is found. With a process
of spiritual discernment, it will not be possible to decide every issue
which comes before the meeting, but it will be possible to engage in an
honest process of seeking on those issues which God puts before us.
This last bit begs a very important point. In order for discernment or
consensus processes to work, the group must be committed to the process
and its integrity, at times more so than to any particular outcome. The
desire to move together as a community must be stronger than the desire
to see my position prevail. How does that kind of selfless commitment
grow? It is a mark of the culture of the community, a fruit of the Spirit.
It comes from the experience Paul described in Philippians 2, which I
read before. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in
humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look
not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same
mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This is not a commandment.
It is a description of our rightly-ordered desire as Christians. Quakers
believe that when we draw closer to Christ, we inevitably are drawn closer
to each other, and will come to regard each other’s well being as
more important than our own. This spirit, obviously, can not be mandated
with a new set of rules. It is essential to the success of the new rules.
And it can grow only through practice of new ways of being with each other.
There are ways to encourage these spiritual fruits to blossom. One of
the most easily overlooked is the importance of informal fellowship time.
In order for a group to do hard discernment work together, they must also
form community by knowing each other personally and having fun together.
In the WCC, some of the most valuable times are spent not in the plenary
hall but in the restaurant and the sauna. Each time a group gathers for
business, we must intentionally remake the community through personal
sharing, common prayer, and reaffirmation of our care for each other.
Test any process against the fruits of the Spirit. Is trust increasing?
Do your church meetings result in the growth of “love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”?
(Galatians 5:22-23) This is, after all, one of the purposes of the church
as a community — to nurture the growth of Christian love and faithfulness.
What needs to die in order for new life to grow?
If anything I’ve said tonight has spoken to your condition, I encourage
you to experiment with it, to find openings where change might be possible.
Pay attention to what God is doing in your community, and let it be God’s
work among you. I leave you with a benediction from 1 Thessalonians: “May
the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone
© 2003 Eden Grace
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