Each spring I teach a section in a third-year pastoral course aimed at helping aspiring pastors deal with change and conflict in churches. I have been doing it for years, but the escalating level of tension in our culture that is seeping into churches and ministries has given me an even greater sense of urgency about these issues. One specific topic within this larger discussion is the matter of decision-making in groups. If major changes are to happen, decisions must be made. How decisions are made is often not only a source of conflict but also the place where conflict starts and escalates. One concept that has served me well as a pastor, which I try to emphasize in my teaching and leadership, is pursuing free and informed choices.
What are free and informed choices?
Let’s just break this down piece by piece. By choices I am referring to the outcome of group deliberation and decision-making. So, it would apply to all decisions made by groups like elders, deacons, or congregations basically, any group which must consider options and choose from among them. I am a Baptist congregationalist, so I believe that the final human authority within the local assembly is the congregation itself when properly convened in deliberative assembly. As a pastor in this context, part of my shepherding responsibility is to lead the congregation well in its deliberating and deciding.
By free I simply mean the choices are not the result of coercion or manipulation. The group possesses self-determination. If there is only one option, then there is no choice to be made. If there is more than one option, the group should be free to choose the one which it determines is the correct, best, and wisest course of action.
By informed I mean that the decision-makers have all the necessary and available information to make the decision. The group may not have all the information there is to know on any subject, but they have what they need to know to make a wise decision. Nothing needed is being held back or hidden from sight. The information presented is not being distorted to achieve someone’s desired outcome.
Why should we lead by pursuing free and informed choices?
Pursuing free and informed choices will benefit leaders, decisions, and the congregation. Let us consider each of these in turn.
Leadership integrity is guarded and enhanced when the leader(s) makes sure that the decision-making process is protected from dishonesty and duplicity. Trust is destroyed when necessary information that was available emerges after the decision has been made. If leaders knew and did not share something that was needed to make an informed decision, those leaders have acted without integrity. In a process that focuses on free and informed choices, there are no hidden agendas—the cards, as they say, are laid on the table for all to see. In fact, when leaders openly share information which isn’t favorable toward their desired outcome, it helps people have confidence in their leadership. When it is clear that leaders are pursuing the decision which best benefits the group rather than any particular individual, it produces trust in those leaders. Trustworthiness is the ground of trust, so leaders need to lead without manipulation.
Decisional soundness is baked into decisions which are built on solid data. When the folks making the decision are confident that they have seen all the information they need, whether positive or negative, the decisions stand on solid ground. Well-grounded decisions secure deeper commitment from the group (whether small or large). When people feel like they do not have adequate information or they have been forced to a predetermined conclusion, they do not buy into the decision. They view it as a “rubber stamp” rather than a definite commitment to a course of action. They comply to not make waves or be viewed as rebellious (especially in a church context). In other words, they often go along with the decision out of social comfort or convenience, not because they believe it is the best decision. What sometimes is called consensus really amounts to compliance, and that is not healthy for the long term.
Relational unity also grows out of a deliberate process to make free and informed choices. Commitment to speaking the truth, even when it is uncomfortable or exposes potential problems, strengthens relationships because it builds trust. Dishonesty and duplicity destroy unity. When the decision-makers cannot or do not trust the information they are receiving, there is no ground on which to build unity. Trustworthiness is what begets trust. When people say one thing in one context and something different in another (aka duplicity), trust breaks down and energy shifts from decision-making to in-fighting. Unity comes from being unified around a common mission. Competitive agendas (real or perceived) pull people apart.
How should you pursue free and informed choices?
There is more to be said about this than I can tackle in a short blog post but allow me to touch briefly on four ideas.
Properly use authority, don’t abuse it. Most, if not all, “official” groups have rules which govern them—by-laws, standing rules, procedural guidelines, etc. A sure path to dysfunction is to ignore or violate these. The primary leaders need to honor these structures and work within them, not around them. That requires humility and submission. If the leader(s) begin to operate like a rule unto themselves, it will destroy confidence in the decision-making process. People inherently, and rightly, distrust those who game the system. If the standing rules or by-laws or existing policies declare how the decision must be made, then make it accordingly. You may not move as quickly as you like or may not get the outcome you want, but you will earn the respect and trust of people who see you live under authority.
Pursue clarity and avoid ambiguity. If you are asking people to make a decision, they should understand exactly what the choices are as well as the consequences of each option. Be specific. Allow time for people to listen, learn, and evaluate. Sometimes leaders will spend weeks, maybe months, thinking about the decision, exploring options, clarifying thinking, then present their conclusions to people who are given a brief presentation that hits only the highlights and then are called upon to decide. The leaders wanted and pursued greater clarity, so why shouldn’t they supply it to the decision-makers?
Persuade, don’t pressure people. Pursuing “free” choices does not mean that the leaders must be neutral about the choices. There is nothing wrong with legitimate persuasion—providing information and reasons in favor of a recommended choice. Pressure moves past persuasion to bring the prospect of undesirable consequences to bear on the decision-makers. Think, “If we don’t do X, then…” or “If we do Y, then….” The pastor who threatens resignation if he does not get his way is using pressure, not persuasion. When a group of church members threatens departure if leaders do not bow to their desires, that’s pressure, not persuasion. Basically, any time someone (or some group) threatens consequences if they do not get their way, it is pressure, not persuasion. And pressure undercuts the freedom of decisions.
Present the potential downside as well as the upside of choices. It should be obvious that people should be informed of the potential consequences of decisions, but too often these are minimized or omitted altogether. Without them, though, they are not making an informed decision. Proposals within our church and ministry must include a section labeled “realities” that identifies potential problems or challenges that could happen if we make the proposed decision. Not quite a “pros and cons” list, but this label makes clear that you recognize that every decision has costs and consequences. Identifying these and openly communicating about them provides the needed information for making solid decisions and increases trust in the group.
We live in a day full of institutional distrust and a low view of leadership credibility. The best way to build trust and strengthen credibility is by being trustworthy and credible. Telling people to just trust you will produce the opposite effect. We live in a culture of backroom deals and professionally insincere leaders. God’s people deserve better than that. Trust is earned and one vital part of earning it is leading so that decisions can be made freely and based on solid information. Adopt the long-haul view of leadership and prioritize trust over short-term gains. It is the right thing to do and the most rewarding over time (and eternity!).