The Group Decision Guide

All persons in the church need to participate in making the significant decisions that affect them.  This is an underlying premise of decision-making for member productivity and satisfaction which is emerging from research on leadership styles being conducted by the Center for Parish Development.  Full participation in making major decisions is especially important for members of church committees, board, and other official bodies; yet it is also desirable periodically to involve the total membership and con­stituency of the congrega­tion in making major decisions such as setting the goals of the church and raising and allocating financial resources to undergird the church’s ministry and mission.

The task of the leader is to help the group make and implement its decisions.  This means that the leader is to be thought of as the “helper,” “facilitator,” “enabler,” “servant” of the group.  The leader is to help the group take three important steps: (1) to generate valid information, (2) to make free, informed choices from among viable alternatives, and (3) to build internal commitment to the choices made.[1]

1.  Generate Valid Information

A common failing of groups in arriving at decisions is to jump quickly from the statement of a problem or concern to a decision.  The skillful leader will encourage the group to spend time on the data-gathering step in order to improve the quality of the decision ultimately reached.

a.  Identify the kind of information needed.  Some decisions are simple and straightforward, with all the information needed im­mediately available in the group.  For more complex problems, a group may be lacking important expert information not known by anyone present.  Or again, there may be honest disagreement in the group about the facts of a given issue.  Also, the feelings of persons that are likely to come from a given decision may be significant.  The leader would do well to keep these information needs in mind and help the group clarify the kinds of information it needs before rushing to a decision with insufficient reliable data.

b.  Identify valid sources for the information.  Once the group has clarified what data it needs, it is then possible to discover where or to whom to go to get the information.

c.  Collect the needed information.  Persons or teams may be desig­nated to seek out and report back data needed to make a sound decision. 

d.  Share information from all available sources.  Information gathered on a subject may not all be in agreement.  It is important, therefore, to share all relevant data, along with sources, probable biases, and the degree of confidence the data gatherers have in the information gained.  With these factors in mind, the group can better shift and weight the materials as they move toward a decision.

2.  Allow Free, Informed Choice

Free and informed choice in a church organization is more than just the right to voice an opinion on one side of an issue and then have one’s vote counted equally with everyone else’s.  It includes also having access to relevant information, a chance to discuss the issues in a free and candid manner, and even the right to be persuaded to a different view as a result of the interaction.  The leader’s role in facilitating this entire process is crucial.

a.  Discourage premature and simplistic solutions.  When a group is tempted to resolve an issue quickly by acting on a motion made in response to the problem statement, the leader may want to intervene to slow down such a precipitous action.  Usually, a reminder of the need for more reliable information is enough to redirect the group in a problem-solving style.

b.  Allow all views to be expressed.  This fundamental principle of democratic process can be thwarted in very subtle ways.  It is one thing for persons to have the right to voice contrary views; it is another to feel free to express themselves without fear of being personally attacked or ridiculed.

c.  “Rule by many minorities” versus “elite minority rule.”  Given the pluralism in the church and in the society at large, it is often impossible to arrive at a decision on a given issue that is popular with everyone.  Some issues reach to the heart of the Christian faith and cannot be compromised.  Yet many others are more a matter of personal preference and taste than they are theological basics.  If a church can be enabled to make these distinc­tions, then it is possible for many sub-groups to exist harmoniously in the same congregation without infringing upon the rights or sensibilities of one another.  The leader of the church’s official policy making body can assist them in finding areas of overlap among sub-groups and negotiating compromises and “trade-offs” in the areas of their differences.

d.  Seek consensus rather than votes.  Some matters in the life of the church carry the legal necessity for a vote of those having voting rights.  Moreover, there are times and circumstances when an action must be taken quickly without time for thorough problem-solving procedures.  But whenever possible, it is desirable that decisions about the life of the church be taken by consensus.  If this is the basic commitment of church groups, then it pushes them to explore a range of options and to combine various persons’ ideas into an optimum solution, rather than to push for a “win/lose” vote on what may be a minimally acceptable solution.

3.  Commitment Comes From Participation in Decisions

Most people who have access to valid information and who have par­ticipated in the process of arriving at a free and informed choice, will have an investment in the decision reached.  That sense of investment is a far more potent motivating factor to ensure the effective implementation of the decision than are subtle or overt coercive tactics, appeals to loyalty, or other devices for getting persons to do what someone else expects or desires that they do.

In a sense, the entire discussion of leadership styles leads up to the point of enabling persons and groups in the church to make valid decisions as a group, and then to follow through on the group methods of decision-making. But the net effect of a leader’s style may be measured to a significant extent by the degree to which s/he frees a group to make good decisions and then “shepherds” those decisions to their logical conclusion.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • Why is it important in the church for as many persons as possible to participate in making the significant decisions that affect them?  How do you try to assure that such broad par­ticipation occurs?
  • Give an example of how you as a church leader helped a group (1) generate valid information, (2) make a free, informed choice from among viable alternative solutions, and (3) build internal commitment to the choice made. 
    • Name the group
    • How did you help it generate valid information?  (Identify the information it needed, identify valid sources for the information, collect the needed information, share information from all available sources.)
    • How did you help it make a free, informed choice?  (Discourage premature and simplistic solutions, allow all views to be expressed, seek consensus rather than votes.)
    • How did you help it build commitment to its decision?
  • Reflecting upon this example, what were the positive and/or negative outcomes?

    [1] Chris Argyris, Intervention Theory and Method, Addison-Wesley, 1973, pp. 16-17.