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Encouraging Dialogue and Building Consensus in a Church of Diverse Cultures

How Do You Build Consensus at Your Church?

Making decisions can be a challenge in any church, and is even more complex when you are working with several ethnic groups, or with a group which does not come from a democratic heritage.

Westerners are typically comfortable with a short discussion followed by a vote -- majority rules. But voting western style is a highly individualist activity.

In many cultures, people are reluctant to express personal opinions. Or the group may defer to the head man (or men) to make decisions for the group, and group members (especially women) may find it unthinkable to voice a different opinion.

In other cultures decision-making relies on hours or days of talk among everyone involved until a consensus emerges. People from these cultures may easily feel overwhelmed and left out of a western-style discussion where people raise their hands to vote after a quick discussion of the issues.

But be encouraged. There are several simple models which offer churches new tools for encouraging open discussion and helping congregations make decisions in a way that is graceful and respectful of all participants.

The Permission-Giving Church

Bill Easum, suggests one approach he calls the permission giving church. Here's how it works:

"Permission-giving churches have clear mission statements, vision statements, and value statements. They have a clear sense of purpose that allows people to perform ministry based on that purpose without having to ask. For example, say someone discovers that he has the gift of evangelism and he wants to use it to minister to homeless people. if the church has a clear mission statement, it's easy to determine if this ministry is within the boundaries. if it is, the person doesn't have to go to a board and ask for permission-he just does it if he can find two or three people to do it with him.

"The key to a permission-giving church is that it doesn't vote on things. A permission-giving church moves away from voting and toward discernment. Rather than appointing or electing people, a permission-giving congregation lets God raise people up.

"The issue is accountability, not control. If people do something outside the purpose of the church, then you hold them accountable. The early church held people accountable, but didn't control what they did.

"...The primary benefit is that spiritual wallflowers start to blossom. People don't have to go to committees to do ministry. Think about how many hours are saved!

"...Churches have to agree to move into this model. You can't use it in a traditional, voting-based congregation. It takes major transformation and the dropping of most existing structure. It takes trust and mutual respect for one another.

"...A permission giving church makes a commitment to see in people what God sees in them that they haven't seen in themselves, helps them discover it, and then gets out of their way." (1)

(1) What Churches are Teaching Me About Permission-Giving Churches, an Interview with Bill Easum by Kristi Rector, assistant editor of for Vital Ministry Magazine.

Learn More About Winning Church Strategies:

Winning On Purpose: How To Organize Congregations to Succeed in Their Mission
By John Edmund Kaiser and Bill Easum
Abingdon Press

What You Do Best in the Body of Christ: Discover Your Spiritual Gifts, Personal Style, and God-Given Passion
By Bruce Bugbee

Open Space Technology - the power of self-organizing discussion groups

Open Space Technology is a secular tool, but one worth looking at when you want to create a setting where a diverse group of people can dialogue in ways that are respectful of their interests and culture.

Harrison Owen, who invented Open Space Technology, says the concept came to him when he realized that, for him, the best part of the conferences he attended were the coffee breaks, when he had a chance to talk to people about topics he cared about, rather than simply sitting through another scheduled session. Owen compares Open Space to the self-organizing principal of birds in flight because it gives the participants an opportunity to suggest agenda topics, lead spontaneous discussions and explore topics together.

If your church is asleep, you might investigate Open Space Technology. People will wake up and be more engaged when they are given an opportunity to share their ministry ideas and personal visions.

Learn More About techniques for encouraging lively discussions:

Open Space Technology: A User's Guide
By Harrison Owen
Berrett-Koehler Publishers

The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter
By Juanita Brown and David Isaacs
Berrett-Koehler Publishers

The Walt Disney Model of Leadership Decision Making

The Walt Disney Model is a secular tool for team brainstorming, but one worth mentioning for its simplicity, when balanced by prayerful discernment.

Walt Disney was known for being a creative genius and visionary. In his book, Strategies of Genius: Volume 1, author Robert Dilts summarizes Walt's creative process into 3 steps:

One way to implement this sequence is to spend one session with your team with no brainstorming freely, with no negativity allowed.

Follow this with a separate session where your team takes their best ideas and asks "What would it take to make this happen?"

In a third session, the door would be opened to a reality-check where the skeptics could freely question the plan, probing it for weaknesses and asking "What could go wrong?"

For a big project, the team would repeat these three stages many times, sometimes working on the big vision, sometimes on a specific part of the plan. Hopefully this approach will lead to a moment when the the most skeptical member of the team says, "We're ready. Let's do this!" and you'll know the plan is ready to implement.

Learn More About the Walt Disney Model:

Mark McGuinness has posted an excellent 5-page pdf unpacking the Walt Disney Model.

Strategies of Genius, Volume One
By Robert Dilts
Meta Publications

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