Interim Processes, Naming Problems 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!!

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

Paul: Well 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.

In a reasonably small group, particularly smaller than twelve, it can work supremely well. Anarchy produces relevant leadership and gets you 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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 (Just to prove that it works, the picture above is of me in my Archdeacon’s garb, reading out the licence of Revd Dr Simon’s fantastic successors after that particular process!!)

Inquisitor: So in Benedict’s model, within the “wisdom of the crowd”, what is the leader’s role then?

Paul: The leader’s role is to name the problem – which is a work all it’s own! Then the leader must enable and ensure that each member of the group is able to speak freely and to be heard. The leader must facilitate the conversation until there is a shared understanding of the nature of the problem or decision. 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. And in fact I have never 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 I have always been able to achieve first order agreement, with everyone feeling good about the proposal and the process. I remember another church in Canberra where we had to revise down our payroll commitments and at the same time address some significant relational pressures 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 put 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: Well 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 gloss over endemic issues hoping that the uplift of an energetic new pastor will cancel out any underlying issues that should have been addressed. When a new pastor says “Hang on, you’ve got some problems here. We’d better deal with them,” a congregation and an eldership board can become embarrassed and angry. They don’t want to be at that point on the journey. They had hoped that the new pastor would swiftly carry them away from having to wade through a layer of the story they would rather avoid and feel depleted by having to consider.

The new pastor is then often scapegoated for the pain of these issues and a stalemate dynamic can set in.

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With the Intentional Interim, the pain of these issues is the start point and an agreement is made when the I.I. is engaged to work through these matters determinedly and openly for a limited period in order to maximize the prospects of success for a new pastor.

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 most cases a consultation of two or three sessions with congregation and board or eldership can go a long way, where there is already a level of honesty and broad agreement as to what the problems and aspirations are. Where there are 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, high levels of sickness, unhappiness or ill health of outgoing pastors, pastors leaving without a new job to go to…these would all signal to me that an I.I. process is needed, because it will only be months into that process that the true issues will begin to emerge.

Inquisitor: Are there moments in these processes where the leader needs to make decisions ahead of the consensus?

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Paul: Yes. 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 and adjustment and individual initiative that changed the story for the ANC and for South Africa.

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

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 consensus, you may find that things snap back pretty quickly to how they were before so that the new pastor then gets no benefit from your hard work. That’s why – especially where it is hard, particularly where there has been long-term conflict – I would come back every time to the wisdom of Benedict’s model. You have to give it 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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In my current season of work I am not available to carry a church through an I.I. process. However I am available for consultations by arrangement. Email me at paulanthonywallis@gmail.com

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