Difficult choices

I was asked to help facilitate a meeting last evening in a neighboring community. The place and even the topic of the meeting, while vitally important to the participants, are not necessary for the idea I want to discuss in this morning’s journal. What occurred at the meeting is that most of the participants saw the issue in terms of a fairly simple either/or choice. They were able to see that there was a different point of view than theirs, but thought that there were only two choices. There was a majority that was clear early in the discussion, but there was a definite division in the room. As conversations progressed, tempers began to flare. People were trying to convince others to join their side. At one point the tension was so high that a participant left the room and stepped out of the process.

Although the resolution of the meeting was positive and I believe that bringing in outside facilitators assisted the group in their process, I keep thinking about the dynamics of the meeting. From my perspective as an outsider who wasn’t invested in any particular outcome, the group was hindered by narrowing their choice to only two options. It is something that I see in groups, especially non-profit corporations and church groups fairly frequently. In an attempt to figure out the will of the stakeholders, a leader will present a question as coming down to just a few options, often only two and then polling the group. When a straw poll is taken it is clear that some favor one option and others favor the other. While in a pure democracy, the matter simply comes down to which side has the majority, it doesn’t quite work in many cases because the group needs unity. A majority isn’t all of the people. Those who are in the minority feel disenfranchised. In some situations the minority has sufficient power to make it impossible to proceed even though a majority exists.

I have often said to church leaders that a 60/40 split is no decision. A church needs to have 80 percent of its members behind a project to make that project a go. Throughout my career as a pastor I have sought to avoid leading a church to a vote when it is clear that there is a significant disagreement. In those cases the result can be a split within the church that takes considerable time to heal.

The apostle Paul communicated with congregations that were experiencing disagreement over a wide variety of issues. One topic that was frequently the discussion in the early church had to do with how much of the tradition and law of the Jewish faith had to be incorporated into Christianity. Faithful Jews who became Christians often continued to observe Jewish dietary laws, their Gentile brothers and sisters did not. Which side was right. Paul refused to take sides. He could understand that forcing a choice between two options would divide the community. He urged believers to see unity over sameness.

Church leaders in every generation, however, have sought to set up dichotomies and lead congregations to making difficult choices. “Do we choose this option or that one?” “Is our belief this way or that way?” “Is this moral teaching right or wrong?”

If I were in a position to write a pastoral letter to a congregation, (which obviously I am) one of the pieces of advice that I would offer would be to avoid narrow choices. When it is clear that some people are on one side of an issue and others are on the other side, allow yourselves to agree to disagree. Understand that division and diversity are part of the nature of the community. A church does not have to be a gathering of people who are all the same. And sometimes, we have to allow room for differing beliefs and even different practices to exist within the same institution.

In the case of last night’s meeting, it was very clear to me as an outside observer, that there was no way to make a choice. In the first place, there was not enough evidence to support either side of the issue. The group needed information that they did not have. Some of that information would be easy to obtain, but some of it might be beyond the reach of the group. There are things that we might never know. To speculate about the motivations of a person who is not present is only speculation. There is no way to turn that speculation into a hard fact.

All of this takes place in the context of a wider society that is deeply divided. Our nation has spent too long looking at issues as black and white, or in our case red and blue. You are either on one side of the issue or another. You belong to this party or to the other. In such a context, a kind of hyper-competitiveness takes over and winning becomes more important than how you treat the opposition. You can see this in every debate in congress and often in the bumper stickers and signs in the lawns of your neighbors. In such a situation, rational argument rarely makes any difference. You can win an argument by the rules of logic, but votes are rarely swayed by logic. A burst of emotion is often more productive in terms of winning and losing than a well-crafted argument.

The emotions in the meeting were clear to an outside observer. It was also clear that no one was going to change their mind or alter their opinion. All that the meeting was capable of doing was intensifying the level of emotion. The most productive thing about the evening was the fact that no decision was made. We left the meeting knowing that there was healing that needed to take place before proceeding and that at least in the case of this particular issues, the divisions would remain. The group needs to find the resources to proceed without multiple points of view.

We may use democratic principles in governing our churches and organizations, but sometimes real decisions don’t come down to a simple vote.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!