by Tim Woodroof –
It’s late on a Wednesday night. The shepherds’ meeting is winding down. There is only one item left on the agenda, but it is the final item for a reason. It requires a difficult decision.
“Before we leave tonight,” says the Chair, “we have to decide whether to drop our support for the mission effort in Nicaragua. Contributions are down. We need to make some difficult cuts. And this seems to be the ministry we need to eliminate.”
“Whoa!” another elder bristles—an elder deeply involved in the Nicaragua effort. “I thought we were gonna develop some options tonight. I know the budget is tight. I know we need to trim something. But surely there are other cuts we should make before we start on the missions’ budget!? When did we decide to put Nicaragua on the chopping block?”
A third shepherd jumps in. “We could whittle around the edges of our operating costs … cut our copying expenses … trim the fat out of the youth ministry. But we all know that’s just postponing the inevitable. Nicaragua represents a sizeable portion of our budget. It’s the only place we can make up this deficit. Unless we let a minister go.”
That gets the other elders’ attention. They speak all at once.
- “We need to talk about reducing our staff. We spend half our budget just in salary and benefits!”
- “Hey, these people depend on us. We can’t just throw them under the bus whenever giving is a little thin!”
- “We could always postpone re-roofing the building for another year. That would keep us afloat a little longer.”
The Chair holds up his hands for quiet. “We’ve all known a hard decision was coming. Hard decisions are what leaders do. And it’s time we made this one.”
“Have we even talked to the missions committee?” yet another elder asks forlornly.
The discussion drags on. The Chair sighs to himself. He knows when the hour gets late enough, when his fellow elders get tired enough, someone will call for a vote and (in all likelihood) they will table the discussion until the next meeting. Another can kicked down the road to be wrestled with (again!) next week. Why does decision-making have to be so hard?
Church leaders make decisions. It’s not all they do. Leaders wear many hats, of course: shepherd, teacher, mentor, sage. But no one with any experience as a church leader would deny that making decisions is an important part of the leadership role.
And church leaders make decisions together. Decisions are team efforts. They involve different people with different priorities trying to reach agreement on a shared problem—not an easy or intuitive thing to do.
Unfortunately, this group decision-making process is rarely defined. Church leaders have only the vaguest sense of how to make decisions as a group, with the result that important steps in good decision-making are either omitted or violated. In the example above, for instance, the discussion demonstrates several common decision-making mistakes:
- What is the question under discussion? Some of these elders thought the conversation would be about whether and how to handle a budget deficit. Others, however, came to the table with a solution already in hand—the Nicaraguan mission effort. A lack of clarity about the question being considered causes confusion and muddies dialogue.
- What are our options? A few possibilities for addressing the down-turn in giving were raised in the above example: drop the Nicaragua mission, let a minister go, postpone re-roofing. But no details were offered to support or recommend any those options. If church leaders don’t have viable, data-backed options available to them, they tend to focus on a single option championed by their most vocal and assertive member.
- Do we have all the information we need? Church leaders often make decisions on the basis of intuition, anecdotal evidence, and even misinformation. We all give lip-service to the importance of doing homework, talking to stake-holders, or scoping out consequences. But when decisions are made in the same meeting that issues are raised, there is no time for information-gathering and inclusive dialogue.
- Have we heard dissenting voices? In the rush to unanimity and consensus, church leaders can run past concerns, objections, and disagreements. We think everyone is on the same page when, in reality, we’ve either ignored dissenting voices or made the cost of dissent so great that objections are not even raised. In the example above, dissent was neither encouraged nor taken seriously. It was seen as a hindrance to solution rather than valuable input for reaching a solution.
The result of poor group decision-making processes can be grave. Fractured leadership. Personality-driven decisions. Bias. Marginalized leaders who feel their voices are not heard or valued. Rubber stamping. Decisions without data. Feeble, half-hearted communication and execution. Erosion of trust among the leadership group.
All church leaders want to make good decisions (usually defined as coming to correct conclusions and nailing down right solutions). Fewer of us recognize there are no good decisions without good processes for making decisions. A lack of process undermines the integrity of individual decisions and, ultimately, compromises the trust and confidence of the leadership group making those decisions.
A Decision-Making Metaphor
Imagine driving from City A to City B. You can take two different routes, both of which will get you to your destination, though each offers a very different experience along the way.
Consider the “scenic route.” Meandering and relaxed, varied and quirky, the scenic route has its attractions. You can get on the road almost anywhere—from side streets, drive-ways, and parking lots. Just look both ways first. While on the road, you can drive fast or slow, navigate tricky twists and turns, stop to stretch your legs, or refuel quickly at a road-side gas station. When you near your destination, just turn at a cross street or parallel park on the side of the road and you’re there!
The other option is the freeway. Fast and efficient. Controlled and managed. You can only access the freeway via an on-ramp. You only leave the freeway by taking an exit-ramp. And while on the freeway, there are a number of rules you must observe in order to move efficiently and cooperatively towards your destination.
Many church leaders move towards decisions using the “scenic route.”
With many leadership groups, for instance, there are several ways an issue can get on the group’s agenda: a subject is mentioned as a meeting commences and is immediately discussed … an irate member has cornered one of us in the hallway and the encounter demands instant analysis when the leadership group meets … something happens, an event occurs, in the life of the church that leaders (naturally) want to talk about and consider. Getting on the agenda is informal, immediate, and un-vetted. You don’t even have to look both ways!
Once an issue gets on the leaders’ agenda, there are very few rules about how to proceed “down the road.” We talk about an issue until we grow exhausted … or get frustrated by covering the same ground repeatedly … or sense a vague consensus forming. The pace and passion with which we proceed is determined less by the church’s mission or priorities as by the amount of anxiety associated with the issue—the higher the anxiety, the greater the pace and passion. We get side-tracked. We chase rabbits. We ignore signs along the way (like “Get more information” or “Listen to objections”). Finally, in this feel-your-way-forward fashion, we make a decision.
Once a decision is made, too many leaders assume their job is done. The journey is over. Time to park this car! As a result, decisions are made but poorly communicated … because we don’t think about a communication plan. Decisions are made but poorly implemented … because no one “owns” the task of planning and considering consequences. Decisions are made but rarely evaluated … because leaders are focused on the next set of issues and decisions.
There is an alternative. Instead of the scenic route, we can take the freeway as we move towards decision-making. Yes, we have to obey some additional rules with this route. Yes, we have fewer options about the manner in which we proceed. Yes, the journey is more formal and controlled. But if you want to be more effective and efficient at decision-making, if you yearn for a route that bolsters the integrity of decisions and enhances the trust and confidence of the group making those decisions, a decision-making-freeway may be the best road to take.