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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rexford

Report from Forward Chat - April 28, 2019


(or at least getting better at making decisions . . . )

This Forward Chat was held upstairs in the Chapel because Family Promise is using the Parlor this week.About 25-30 people were present. This discussion on decision-making was held at the request of theBylaw Committee.

Introduction from the Bylaw CommitteeBylaw Committee Chair Bob Munroe introduced the session by describing the committee’s recent work:

Timeline: The Committee has been meeting since October, usually every two weeks. We plan to meet through the summer and hope to present a draft for congregational discussion in the fall.

Process: We recently reset our own process and we are now actively seeking input from anyone with ideas or perspectives to share, including people not directly involved in governance.

Point of view: The committee recognizes that our governance problems are not merely

mechanical ones (such as term limits) that we can fix by tweaking the language here and there. The Committee is looking at substantial changes in the way we conduct business in the hope of reducing stress and inefficiency.

Everything is still unsettled: None of the governance details you may hear committee members talking about is set in stone. Our concepts develop with every new meeting, so this is the perfect time to share your thoughts! We invite and welcome comments, ideas and questions from everyone in the congregation. Any concerns you bring to the committee will be part of our discussion.

Introduce the Committee: Mac Donaldson, Donna Kendall, Keith Linares, Peggie Morris, Bob and Suzanne Munroe and Nancy Rexford.

Introductory question about problems making decisions

The topic of discussion today was how decisions are made in the church and how we can improve our decision-making practices. Rather than immediately focusing on governance structures, we talked about the kinds of conversation we have when decisions are being made.

We began by passing out a slip of paper with two related questions:

A church group meets to make a decision with high stakes for the church’s future.

1. Describe one factor that could impair the group’s ability to make that decision wisely.

2. What could the group do to overcome that problem?

We asked for answers in writing because verbal discussion is often skewed by the earliest and most assertive speakers. All the answers have been transcribed verbatim and are available here.

Summary of written responses describing problems:

1. Not enough ideas / one person’s ideas dominate

a. No time limit on people’s monologues

b. People with other ideas are not coming to the meeting

c. Some people have trouble articulating their thoughts

d. Others don’t think well on their feet, but have ideas later

e. Some people are not confident enough in themselves to put their ideas forward

2. Not enough information / or not broad enough input into the decision

3. Not enough dissemination of information about decisions and process

4. Unwillingness to listen or change minds/ Need safe atmosphere for discussion

5. Forbidden subjects

6. Too many people are trying to decide.

a. Need to trust our elected delegates to make decisions.

b. People who want to make decisions should volunteer for committees and do the work

Summary of the discussion about possible solutions

Need to encourage broader input

• Draw on wider community for input before decision is made

o Do not rely only on email or website

o Need to reach people through print as well

• Ask each person to speak separately (sometimes going around the room in turn)

• Need quieter people to step up and participate

• Make sure the people with the necessary information, skill or authority are actually in the room

Keep the group from shutting down ideas too soon

• Agree to go into every meeting with an open mind (covenant concept). Ask if what you are about to say, “builds up the church.”

• Have responses to new ideas follow LCS protocol: first Likes, then Concerns, then Suggestions

We need to create a better-informed congregation

• Is there a better way to reach people who do come to church but are not active in church governance?

o We used to give new members an information booklet about the church that explained how governance worked

o We also had personal meetings (at homes, I believe) to help orient new members.

o We could make more use of announcements during church to request input from

people not on committees, so even if people choose not to get involved, they at least know what is going on.

• When proposing a new initiative in a Congregational Meeting, we could prepare written

statements of pros and cons similar to the election pamphlets for ballot referenda. This should be available in print and online for everyone in the congregation.

Toolkit for decision-making discussions

During this meeting, facilitator Nancy Rexford referred to several tools we can use to avoid the common pitfalls groups fall into when trying to make decisions. These have been gathered into a one-page “Toolkit” for strengthening our decision-making conversations, available here.

The Great Banner Controversy

Dale Miller-Bouton observed that “what tears us apart is the decisions where we don’t know how they got made, like the banners. People want to know, who made that decision?” Wendy Linares spoke up to explain how the rainbow banners came to be wrapped around the pillars of the church. A full account of this issue will be provided in a separate blog post, and it will be the topic of the May 5 Forward Chat.

Graphic mapping the relationship between information and representativeness.

Many of the comments in this meeting related to how much input or representation people should have in decision-making when they were not actually on the committee making the decision. A secondary theme or corollary was whether the people making a decision had enough information.

Nancy Rexford shared a graphic toward the end of the meeting illustrating the relationship between information (expertise) and “representativeness.” Unfortunately, unless we are careful in our process, the more representative the group making the decision, the less information or expertise it is likely to bring to the task.

1. Staff - typically offer a great deal of expertise and information, but as individuals, they can’t really represent the congregation as a whole. Any one individual’s tastes and perspectives may or may not line up well with those of the congregation.

2. Committees – Committee members are rarely paid professionals like staff, but they do build up significant knowledge and skill relating to their specific areas of work. They are more representative than staff because they are elected and consist of more than one person.

3. Council - in this graphic, we define council as a smallish body elected specifically to represent the congregation as a whole. Council members may not have as much expertise as a committee in any one area, but they have the power to draw on the expertise of all committees when needed. Beyond that, a well-run Council has its own expertise about the overall mission and workings of the church.

4. Congregation - is a direct democracy where every adult has a vote. It is therefore fully representative, but it is rarely fully informed. Congregational votes are very often taken after minimal perusal of the information and amount to little more than a rubber stamp.

Later reflections on bylaws and decision-making

Part of the challenge of rewriting the bylaws is to find the right balance between representativeness and expertise (as illustrated in the graphic above). That balance cannot be the same for every decision.

Ideally, a decision that affects a lot of people for a long time (a “high-stakes decision”) involves broader input from the congregation than a decision that affects only a few people or lasts only a short time (a “low-stakes decision”).

Low-stakes example: Choosing which anthem to sing on June 9 is a good example of a low-stakes decision. Everyone who comes to church that day has to sit through it, but only for four minutes, and even the most disappointed congregant prefers the punishment of listening for four minutes to the much lengthier chore of figuring out an alternative. People in the congregation understand that choosing anthems requires expertise, and they know they don’t have time to do the work, much less to acquire the skill necessary to do it well, so they give up their claim to representation—to a say—in the decision. The same principle applies to the pastor’s sermons.

Escalation of a low-stakes example: With the passage of time, however, a series of disappointing anthems or sermons will become a problem with higher stakes, because a pattern of bad music and bad sermons can weaken church attendance. A long-term pattern in small decisions, though each one is low-stakes in itself, begins to cry out for more representation, which in the case of pastors and music directors, is typically handled through an annual performance review or a staff-parish committee. Thus, choosing anthems and writing sermons are decisions where the appropriate balance is normally heavy on expertise and light on representation, but the system also allows for periodic feedback with wider representation in case a course correction is needed.

High-stakes example: At the other end of the spectrum is the high-stakes decision to choose a pastor, and in the Congregational tradition, that decision must be made by the most representative body of all – the congregation. Having voted to call a pastor, the congregation owns the decision and its consequences. But the congregation can’t choose a pastor without information that is deep and nuanced, and that is hard to convey to a large group.

This is an example of the problem we talked about briefly at Forward Chats when we looked at the graphic with the triangles:

1. How do you move information about the congregation’s views down to the smaller groups making decisions?

2. How do you move information up to the congregation when the congregation needs to make an informed decision?

What happens in our current bylaws in regard to pastoral search is that the elected moderator appoints a search committee representative of the congregation. It is not too difficult to create a process to collect the congregation’s views to help the committee. But it is very difficult to create a process that shares details about a pastoral search with the congregation, because such sharing would violate the confidentiality expected by the candidates. That means that when the congregation finally votes, it is a “whether or not” decision based on minimal information about the final candidate and none whatsoever about any of the runners up. In a system that preserves confidentiality, the congregation must delegate its right to choose to the committee that represents them all. The vote is little more than a rubber stamp.

Getting the right balance of information and representation is not easy. But as a first step, we can map all the ways the information has to move, and suggest some avenues for communication:

We will revisit these and other bylaw issues in a later Forward Chat.

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