Church decision making – methods and majorities

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This is a follow up to my article on how we go about making decisions as churches. In my previous article, I talked about when decisions should be made by church leaders and when they should be made by the whole congregation all together.

Today, I’d like to talk about the nuts and bolts of decision making.  How do we go about making those decisions when there is a plurality of people involved?  Fascinatingly, the New Testament does not explicitly describe our method of choice which is to take a vote.  Why is that?  Well, I suspect that it is because our assumption is that a decision is arrived at either by

  • Unanimity – where each individual has a veto
  • Consensus – where a compromise acceptable to all is accepted
  • Majority – where the greatest number wins out.

The problem with all of these approaches are that they assume that it is the church or leadership team deciding what they would like to do.  The focus is on the human grouping and our ability to get to the right answer through reason and debate or at least to an acceptable answer. But, is the majority always right?  If we end up with  compromise where no one is happy how is that a better decision?  If we insist on unanimity, then are we handing control to specific people to block things regardless of whether or not it is the right thing to do?

So, I think the starting point is to remember what the purpose is on a matter. It is not to just nod through an idea as commanded by God but nor is it just to decide what seems good to us. Rather, we are aiming for discernment, to understand what the right thing to do as we seek to be obedient to God’s will is.  This I believe is best reflected by the phrase used in Acts 15:28.

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to ….”

With this concern in mind, then we know what the outcome we are looking for is. We want to describe a decision as something that seems good to us and the Holy Spirit. I want to suggest that this leads to some principles

  1. People (whether elders, leadership team or church members) involved in the decision should be informed of all the relevant information they need to make the decision. They should be given the opportunity to ask questions and clarify to ensure they have gathered all the necessary information to make a wise and informed judgement.
  2. They should be given space and time to think and to pray.
  3. We should seek the opportunity to hear qualitative feedback not just “yes” and “no”.
  4. The method for establishing what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” may vary from context to context.

In practice in my experience of church life and church leadership, this has meant that we’ve taken different approaches at different times. Sometimes, you get a feel of the room as you listen to conversation, you pick up what the mood is. Sometimes you need to stop and ask for some kind of indication.  I’ve put it in these terms before when a proposal has been met with little or no discussion or questions.

“I’m picking up that we don’t want to spend time asking questions about this. It may be that this is because the proposal is so obvious that we just want to move on and get on with it. However, it could be that it is so ridiculous that you cannot believe we’ve even brought it to you.”

I would then listen to people’s response to get a feel for the position and perhaps ask for a show of hands. Indeed, I might intentionally put the proposition in negative terms. 

“Please could you indicate if you think we definitely should not be going ahead with this.”

At that stage, in a sense I am inviting a veto or a break on the process. Even if only a small minority indicate this, we need to take time to listen to them.

When we wanted to clear as elders about the appointment of a new leader or something particularly significant in the life of the church, we’d often go round the room and ask each leader to express their view and reason.  We may well decide that we wanted unanimity on this.

Sometimes, we would invite members to write in with observations. Whilst we encouraged each member to do so, it was not a vote and if they didn’t write in, we assumed that they had no objections.

Sometimes, we took votes.  At Bearwood Chapel, we asked for a vote on purchase of property, discipline of a church member and moving to multiple services. It was a way of indicating whether or not the church was with us.  However, despite us having a significant majority at times, we always spoke with those who objected to see if we had their consent. Every time, I got the answer “Yes, I’m okay to go with the church decision, I just wanted to register my current views on the matter.”  I think that if we had a position where we had 52% to 48% in favour of something, I’d see that as close to 50-50 and suggest we paused on the suggestion for further prayer and discussion.

As a charitable trust there will be particular decisions that may require formal votes and levels of approval as well as the requirement for specific meetings such as an AGM with quoracy requirements. These will need to be set out in your consitution and will depend a little upon how the trust is set up.

However, I don’t like the idea of super majorities. I’ve heard of churches insisting on up to 95% of the vote to go ahead with something and in many churches, appointments require 80%. I’ve also known people who won’t take a pastoral appointment if the decision was not unanimous.  I’d stay away from such thresh holds. If I insist on a unanimous decision, then I may well be putting too much regard on my own reputation to persuade and my likeability. If I set a high threshold then I am in effect giving the veto to one or two powerful individuals and families. That is to give up my leadership responsibilities.

I would stay clear of legalistic rules on decision making. The important thing is that you have a confident sense at the point of decision  that there is agreement and that this, to the best of your ability to discern seems good to you, the elders, the members and to the Holy Spirit.