Interim Processes, Naming Problems, Red Flags and Consensus Decision-making

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Inquisitor: Paul, I have heard you talk about a Benedictine approach to group decision making, and I know that you have used this in intentional interim processes. Can you walk us through it?

Paul: Yes, the first time I used this particular model of consensus decision-making was at a church in Canberra. We went through a two year journey of healing – not an intentional interim process by name. But in retrospect that is really what it was. Because conflict and relational breakdown had been part of the previous chapter at great cost to the minister and to the congregation, I was very deliberate about leading with a consensus approach, and Benedict’s is the best I know.

Inquistor: Where did you learn it? Did you see it modeled by other pastors?

Paul: No. No, the pastors I worked with in my early days in the ministry were…of a generation shaped by different management practices. I guess top-down management was just beginning to expire in the culture of the churches I was among in the UK – and I could see the non benefits of their approaches for upcoming generations of believers and colleagues. When a top-down leader intersects with democratic church polity it is a difficult clash of dynamics to negotiate – and more than once I saw that mismatch of expectations lead to unhealthily autocratic patterns. So my early experience made me hungry for an effective alternative.

I am on the cusp of two generations – Boomers and Gen X and so I was probably predisposed to seeing a need for a model that honors both the unique contribution of a leader and the work of the Holy Spirit among peers. I couldn’t help noticing that in Acts Luke says “We concluded” – that’s plural; or again “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit” – plural again. So I was eager to find a leadership model that held these things together in a healthier way.

Inquisitor: So do you think it was a cultural shift or was it the Bible that clued you to another way?

Paul: I actually first encountered this particular consensus model in print in 1997 – when I spent an extended season in study. I was researching fruitful spiritual movements through church history. So through the magic of print it was Benedict of Norcia who I “saw” modeling this form of leadership in Italy in the 500s AD – when I was much younger!!

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Inquisitor: Consensus decision making sounds to a lot of people like non-leadership. It can sound like anarchy?

Paul: Well I reckon there’s more to be said for anarchy than often gets said. Anarchy as a model for leadership began to get some serious traction in leadership-training in the 90’s. True anarchy is not chaos. It is sometimes called the “wisdom of crowds.” And in a leadership training context the way it was used was that a task would be given to a group of people, with no further instructions. Almost invariably the group would agree teams, point persons, and processes with the consensus of the group as part of the process and part of the goal.

Anarchy as a process tool can work supremely well. It can produce relevant leadership and achieve healthy outcomes. Given a creative task, anarchy generally will move towards something like the Benedictine model and it will produce and recognize leadership! And I have seen that model used in intentional interim ministry – by a superb exponent of it by the name of Revd Dr Chris Simon – and that was in an Anglican/Episcopal context.

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For further reading on anarchy as a process tool, let me recommend “The Wisdom of Crowds” by New York columnist, James Surowecki

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 And, just to prove that it works…the picture above is of me in my Archdeacon’s role, reading the licence of Revd Dr Chris Simon’s successors after a successful intentional interim process led by Revd Dr Simon, based on the wisdom-of-crowds approach.)

Inquisitor: It’s interesting that you speak about the “wisdom of the crowd” as something positive. Most of the time when people use the phrase “group-think” they mean it in a derogatory way – as if group-thinking is automatically poor thinking.

Paul: Well of course it can be! I think what the phrase “group-think” usually refers to is a pattern where a group has a conversation in which every contribution is hemmed in from the outset with a dynamic of “Is this what the group thinks?” or “I think what we are saying is…” – in which no-one wants to stand out from the pack. The problem is that unity of mind is being sought without allowing the minds to speak for themselves.

A helpful leader will get all the individuals’ honest initial perspectives on the table before any patterns or unity of mind are looked for. If you don’t do that then you’re not tapping the collected wisdom of the crowd, instead you’re going for a lowest common denominator outcome. There has to be an exchange of views. That’s why leadership is still needed – but a form that facilitates contributions rather than dominates.

Inquisitor: So in the Benedictine model of the wisdom of the crowd, how would you sum up the leader’s role?

Paul: In a context that’s called for an Intentional Interim the leader’s role is to help the group correctly name the problem – which is a work all it’s own! Then the leader must ensure that each member of the group is enabled to speak freely, from their own individual perspective, and be heard. The leader must then facilitate the conversation until there is a shared understanding of the nature of the problem or decision. The group mind forms after the individual minds have spoken and pooled their wisdom. The voices of all from the oldest to the youngest and the most senior to the most junior must be given equal respect – Benedict was very strict on that – and that balancing of the conversation is a key part of the leader’s job as chair.

Key to this conversation is that each member of the group is called upon to speak to the issue not as a sectional representative – you know, “Well I speak for the youth!” or “I speak for the women!” Instead each group member is asked to address the issue in a way they see as being true to and beneficial for the congregation as a whole. This again is part of the agreement that needs to be clarified and emphasized right at the beginning of the process.

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The leader may then propose a way forward and invite everyone in the group to evaluate the proposal. The leader will then formally make the proposal and invite group members’ approval. It may be edited to achieve complete support. This is a First Order Agreement.

If agreement is not reached at that point, the leader will either table a different proposal or invite a Second Order Agreement ie “I know this wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice, but with majority agreement would everyone be prepared to support the proposal”. 

If the answer is yes, you can move forward with maximum transparency. If not then the group is not ready to make a decision. Either further reflection is needed, or another factor needs to emerge, and the group will have to return to the matter another time.

Inquisitor: It sounds like a model for very slow decision-making.

Paul: Potentially. But very few things are so important and urgent that you need to steam roller your leadership group. Actually, I don’t think I have ever had to delay decisions because of an impasse at the level of second order agreement.

Even where a group might be maximally reluctant to engage in a decision of the kind on the table for them we have always been able to achieve first order agreement, with everyone feeling good about the outcome and the process. I remember another intentional interim process in which I had to downsize the church’s payroll commitments and at the same time address some significant relational pressures between staff and the eldership board. It was a meeting none of us wanted to enter. Yet, because of the process, we came away with a first order agreement and with elders saying the meeting had been the best elders meeting they could remember!

Inquisitor: How can you do that in a church that is frazzled by pressures and conflicts?

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Paul: I think the key in intentional interim is that as best you can you begin by putting on the table all the problems that are going to be addressed through the process. Always other layers of problem and story will emerge when you get months into the process. But the naming of problems and the agreement in-principle to work through them totally alters what is possible for an Intentional Interim as distinct from a regular pastor.

Inquisitor: Paul, can you just unpack that a bit? How is a regular pastor not able to do some of this work?

Paul: I wouldn’t be absolutist about it but, to generalize, I have noticed that with the employment of a regular pastor a church will often deny or gloss over endemic issues firstly wishing not to put-off pastoral candidates, and secondly hoping that the energy of the new pastor will cancel out any underlying issues that really ought to have been addressed before.

So if, instead, the new pastor successfully identifies these underlying issues and says, “Guys, did you not realize you have some serious problems here? We’re going to have to get to grips with these problems before we can get far with anything else,” then a congregation – especially the diaconate or eldership board – can find themselves embarrassed. The danger is that a dynamic of deflecting blame can  morph into projecting blame. If not called out early that dynamic will poison relationships – across the church. Often pain of these complex and endemic issues will get projected onto the new pastor and the poor congregation won’t know what in the world is going on.

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By contrast, when an Intentional Interim is engaged the pain of these issues is faced squarely at the start point and an agreement is made to work through these matters determinedly and openly for a limited period. The shared goal is to maximize the prospects of success for the church and the next pastor – together.

Inquisitor: Can that be achieved through a consultation or does it really need an I.I. process to do that?

Paul: I believe that in many cases a consultation of two or three sessions with congregation and board or eldership can go a long way – particularly where there is already a level of honesty and broad agreement as to what the problems and aspirations are. For instance I find it only takes a couple of consultations to avoid common problems of transference for any new pastor.

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Inquisitor: So Paul, you’ve done one-off consults, twice-off consults; you’ve done three six-month contracts, one one year, and two two-year processes. Just compare those for minute. What would be the little red flags that would suggest – to you – that a church needs more than a couple of sessions, that it should consider hiring an Intention Interim for a longer period?

Paul: Looking at the congregation some red flags would be if I see evidence of some taboos or hidden layers to the story, conflicts that won’t go away, endemic patterns that are longstanding, continued depression or numerical decline of the congregation, patterns that are repeating despite turnover of personnel, or high levels of sickness among the people.

Looking at the senior pastors, I would see red flags if the previous 2 (or more) pastors:

  • experienced significant conflicts or complaints during their tenure
  • were removed from their position due to unprofessional conduct
  • concluded their tenures earlier than expected
  • concluded their tenures and moved to non-ministry positions
  • concluded their tenures without having first secured a new job to go to
  • arrived healthy but departed sick, burned out or suffering anxiety
  • experienced significant illness or mental illness in the family during their tenure
  • died or became seriously ill immediately after resigning their tenure
  • suffered from the same sickness
  • left “under a cloud”
  • died early

To me these would all signal that a full I.I. process is needed – addressing all 5 layers mentioned in the second post. And that means committing to a time-frame of 12-24 months. – because it will only be months into that process that the deeper layers and the more disturbing issues will begin to emerge. (For a dramatic case study of red flags and patterns that repeat, you will enjoy my book The New Monastic.)

Inquisitor: We’ve talked about the wisdom of crowds. But are there moments in these longer interim processes – or in a regular pastoral tenure – where the leader will need to make decisions ahead of the consensus in order to move things along?

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Paul: Yes. Definitely. But I would say only sparingly. I would really recommend Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “A Long Walk to Freedom.” His book dramatizes amazingly the mix of consensus leadership, (Mandela almost always speaks of “we” in the story of the ANC’s emergence from prison to power) compromise, adjustment and individual initiative that changed the story for the ANC and for South Africa.

There are times when the Intentional Interim may need appeal directly to the congregation for the sake of transparency and to invite solidarity and accountability with regard to core parts of the process.

However, the problem with doing too much on your own ticket as the leader is that when you go, if you have not enabled those changes through achieving a genuine consensus, you may find that things snap back pretty quickly to how they were before you came, so that the new pastor then gets no benefit from all your hard work. That’s why – especially where it is hard, particularly where there has been long-term conflict – I would want to come back every time to the wisdom of Benedict’s model. You have to give Benedict’s Rule the credit. If it is still being published 1,500 years on, it’s got to have some merit! My experience bears that out.

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