Pressure Points with Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q: We are stuck. Let me explain.

Several of us who are members of our Board of Elders want to add to the staff of our congregation by bringing on a director of Christian education.

We are in an area where there are a lot of young people, especially young adults.  We have adopted an overall plan for our ministry that includes reaching out to these young people.  Our pastor believes that he can support the person who takes up this outreach as a team member, but that he cannot be the specific person who builds that program. 

The Board of Elders cannot come to agreement about this.  The overwhelming majority of us want to move forward, but a couple of the members will have nothing of it.  We believe that we need full agreement from the Board before we can proceed, and it doesn’t look like we’ll get it soon — or perhaps ever.  So we are at a standstill.

We have always valued consensus.  That is why we are stuck.

Do you have any good ideas on how we can achieve the consensus that we need?

A: I do not have any “good ideas” (at least that I can think of at theHartung, Bruce moment) to help your group achieve the consensus that you seek.  In fact, I think that in your current situation, seeking consensus may be not as helpful as you might think. 

The circumstance in which you and the Board of Elders find yourselves is, in a way, being trumped by the minority.  All this means is that where total consensus is desired — and even seen as necessary before moving forward — one or two people can hold up the entire direction set by the “overwhelming majority.”  That is your situation; that is why you are stuck. 

Your being stuck comes from a presupposition of needed consensus.  But while consensus is good, it can be inhibiting to moving forward.

Usually — although this may not be true for you and the Board of Elders — having total consensus as a necessary prerequisite for moving forward suggests a fear of differences and of conflict.  It assumes that conflict in and of itself is a bad thing that needs to be avoided. 

Thus, where conflict could emerge directly — for instance, in a vote to move forward or not — it is avoided.  As a result, a definitive decision is not reached because of the fear of several folks being unhappy with that decision.

For you, getting unstuck means confronting the conflict that exists among members of the Board of Elders and, if necessary, determining the majority decision.  This will leave some people not as happy as they otherwise might be.  But, that is the price of decision-making and good leadership.

Communities of faith need to be able to develop a tolerance for conflict.  In fact, conflict in many senses is good. 

People are different and they have differences.  While there are limits to the differences available in the community that is the Body of Christ, there is still plenty of room for varying opinions and ideas.  In your case, the difference is connected to a staffing issue.  Conflict exposes the different views, and this is good. 

Conversation about the different ideas, held respectfully in a context in which views are clearly and deeply mined and understood, is good.  At some point, however, forward movement needs to take place.

In short, abandon the search for total consensus.  Embrace the conflict.  Help the minority understand that life and decisions do move forward.  Care for those who do not agree.  And go for it!

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is an associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  He can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu.

Posted April 28, 2006

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