PICTURE yourself chairing a PCC meeting that must come to a decision — the “big” or the “small but problematic” kind. The group around you consists of people of diverse backgrounds, with different levels of spiritual experience, possessing widely differing skill sets, and you think you have determined the best way forward. How are you going to administer the process?
There may already have been some form of consultation on the issue, and you may, for the sake of brevity, be tempted to choose the “head down, push for the line” strategy: in other words, state the case, make the decision, force it through, use whatever executive authority you possess, and then move on to the next item on the agenda.
A wise person once said, however: “If you think you are the smartest person in the room, you might be in the wrong room.” So, alternatively, it might behove you to tread carefully in this situation, because the path to a consensus — which would permit implementation of the chosen way forward without rancour, and without the raising of a series of obstacles by those who didn’t concur with your choice — will demand wisdom, discernment, and patience.
By “consensus” we mean agreement that doesn’t require unanimity, but achieves buy-in from all — or, at least, the vast majority.
FOR most decisions in a church context, the participants will come to the table with (sometimes wildly) differing opinions, and it will be necessary for some to be led to a point where they acknowledge that a decision is the right one in the circumstances, even though it was not their own preferred option. The minister might even be one of those who makes the accommodation.
It will be so much the better if those whose minds were altered are then able to say that they believe that God had a hand in the process — that, in some way, the process itself was helpful and satisfying, and they now have confidence in the dynamic, feeling assured that, when solutions to other problems are required, the chairperson and the group are likely be able to discern it together.
One of the great difficulties that we all have when trying to come to a decision is that we don’t know the future — what might occur to make a nonsense of our best-laid plans. Another problem is that we don’t know everything that there is to know about the issues surrounding that decision: are we considering all the viable options, or are there others that we are blind to? Fortunately, God knows, and, to quote Francis Schaeffer (paraphrasing Psalm 50): “He is there and he is not silent.”
God also understands the church context in which the decision has to be made: its unique sociological, theological, and experiential character, and the structures that remain in place and need to be navigated. He understands that the minister has to be adept at looking in two directions at once: to the needs of the congregation or community and the needs of the structures; and to the meeting of expectations and the fulfilment of a vision.
God also knows that the complexities of a situation, the legal and structural constraints, and, sometimes, the perversity of human nature may combine to block the ideal option, forcing you to adopt the least worst instead. You may give it your best shot, have to accept a compromise, and then depend on God’s grace to enable you to get up, get better at understanding your job and the people around you, and then get ready to aim just as high next time.
Of course, being able to make good decisions in a group — or even with one significant other person — is possible only when you have learned how to make good personal decisions. How can we be certain of that? Because there is no such thing as a solo decision: you make a good decision by understanding that there is always another person involved, God, who has vitally important opinions to offer that always shed light on the issue, however complex. Good decisions are made by achieving a consensus with God.
FOR this type of consensus to be achieved, it is necessary for God to have spoken to at least some of those involved in the decision-making process. Accordingly, all those involved should be encouraged to pray for God’s direction, bearing in mind that he has lots of (biblical) ways of attracting our attention: such as a quiet inward sense (where we just know that we know); insight coming from reading scripture, or hearing a sermon or talk; timely advice from a friend or colleague; or a dream or image or vision; plus many other strange, wonderful, and imaginative ways.
Successful ministry outcomes, from the individual through to the corporate, are therefore dependent on a key scriptural principle: namely, that every believer can hear from the Lord and know his will (Psalm 119.105; Hebrews 1.1,2; John 16.13), and that God can attract the attention even of unbelievers (Genesis 31.24; Esther 6.1-3; John 16.7-11).
Because he is the author of such communication, and because “the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10.3), God has blessed every one of us with faculties for discerning what he is saying — faculties that require neither descent into fanaticism nor a heightening of stress levels to be used effectively.
What we are referring to is a set of sensing/feeling elements: the conscience; the human heart; the human spirit; and the work of the Holy Spirit, each of which is distinct from the others, and has a different function in the decision-making process.
This “toolkit” holds the key to discerning not just bad from good, but also, with practice, good from better and better from excellent. As for basic differentiation between right and wrong, John 10.5 goes on to say: “A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus is illustrating (even embodying) the words of Malachi 3.18: “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not.”
As for more subtle distinctions, Ecclesiastes 8.5 says: “The wise heart will know [discern] the proper time and the just way,” and Paul prays for the Philippians in chapter 1 that they will “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment so as to approve what is excellent”.
Expertise in discernment is not gained overnight or by attending a few church meetings, however good the person chairing the meeting might be. Rather, as Hebrews 5.14 suggests: “The mature are those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice.” Hence, both clergy and laity need not just to develop their analytical skills, but to recognise the importance of their sensing/feeling capabilities.
If God speaks into a situation, He will be “heard” by one or more of these subjective means, and his input very often will override natural inclinations and powers of reason.
THE decision process itself should make room for all of the components — analysis of the options; the subjective perception about right and wrong from our consciences; the deep inward desires and convictions that we feel in our hearts; any sense of invisible spiritual dynamics in a situation that has registered in our human spirits, either as ease or unease; and any words of guidance and direction from the Holy Spirit — and the participants must learn how to weigh the contributions.
Learning to make decisions with God means exactly what it says: it is wholly dependent on relationship, on getting to know his ways, on constant communication, and on establishing a partnership with him in ministry. The following principles, however, in addition to the many others already stated in this article, should apply in the outworking of that relationship, and in the dynamics of our human interactions around the table:
• good decisions do not fall out of following prescribed steps — rather, they flow from common sense, wisdom, and divine revelation;
• everyone can be a recipient of communication “in the Spirit”, but each believer can learn to discern the mind of Christ;
• no group of people involved in the process should have all the power, and no one should have no power (God often gives important insight to the least, and, sometimes, parts of the story to several different participants);
• God will very rarely work with us in exactly the same way twice: adopting a formula is not recommended (see 2 Samuel 5.17-25);
• understanding the principles of godly decision-making is not enough: altering personal and group behaviour to accommodate them is also required;
• the more we recognise our need of, and learn to depend on, God, the more grace we will receive, and the easier it will be to discern his will; and
• God’s word is absolutely trustworthy. If he has said something, we can be “in faith” for it to come about, despite adverse circumstances that appear to threaten the outcome.
Like the shepherds of old, church leaders have a duty of care toward the “flock”, and a responsibility not just to make sound and wise decisions themselves, but also to train and develop those around them in the art of individual and corporate decision-making.
The PCC or other forum is, therefore, also a training ground, where, if the principles of learning to make decisions with God are upheld, people will gain expertise, and those with a contrary opinion will more easily recognise that there is an emerging alignment between the will of God and the will of the group which they need to embrace, and the number of conflicts that result in compromised outcomes will be reduced.
It is possible for consensus to become the norm.
Iain Dunbar has extensive experience of recruitment, career development, team- building, and coaching. Peter Wilkinson, a retired engineer, is active in senior management in Baptist churches. Their book, Good Call: Learning to make decisions with God, is published by BRF; £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1-80039-218-2.