Pressure Points (September)

With Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q: I have been an LCMS member for my whole life, and I have held various elected positions in my congregation.  And I have always been bothered by how we make difficult decisions in the congregation. We simply vote!

When we vote, it becomes clear where the “majority” of the votes are in a particular disputed situation.  Is there not a better way?  When we vote, there are always people on the “winning” side and others on the “losing” side.

In my times as an elected officer in my congregation, I have seen this mean that people actually end up saying that their side lost or won, and then come at it again gearing up to gather enough political support to win another day.

Is this competitive spirit consistent with our understanding of the function of our congregations?  The problem is that I do not know of a better way.  I prefer that we all agree, but I know that is not possible in most circumstances.

I come back again and again to the conclusion that voting is the only way out if a unanimous agreement cannot be reached.  If there is a better way, I do not see it.

Do you see a better way?  If you do, I want to talk about it with my congregation.

A: Voting has lots of good consequences.  Without it or something like it, small minorities of folks can impede the will of a majority and actions supported by most could be delayed or even stalled.  With it, the thinking and will of the majority is tested and seen, and everyone has an equal say in the decision.

Basically, voting is a way to make a decision and get on with whatever the “it” is that is being discussed.  A major alternative to voting — establishing a consensus — would be a better way if a consensus can be achieved.  But that has a serious weakness, because even one naysayer can stop everything in its proverbial tracks.

At the same time, since all things human are capable of destructive and negative use, your concerns need to be considered and leaders need sensitivity to both the process that leads to a vote and the aftercare following it.

Finally, voting is an exercise of power. Because of this, a danger in voting — as in, “let’s bring this to the voters assembly so we can vote on it” — is precisely as you state: there are winners and losers.

And, if the basic premise of folks is to win — as in, “we are going to fight again and again until our position wins” — then winning becomes the dominant value and motivator.  Energy is then put into the more political process of winning the point rather than engaging the question.  In this kind of a scenario, open study and respectful engagement of disagreeing folks all but stops and mobilizing one’s troops for political battle becomes the place where energy is used.

The antidote to all this is to put more energy into healthy discussion and empathic engagement of people and of issues and much less energy into winning a debate, conflict, or vote.  It is hard to shift from a battle style to an engagement/discussion style; but it is possible in repentance, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Since there are people who were on the prevailing side of a vote and on the defeated side of it, spiritual issues will need to be addressed.  These could include pride or righteousness for those on the prevailing side, and anger or sadness for those on the other side.

The response of good leadership is both to lead a healthy and respectful process of discussion leading up to the vote, and to follow up with persons involved in the voting — with conversation and genuine care.

How people are dealt with is crucial and, in some cases, likely more important than the outcome of the vote.  This is especially true if everyone is treated with respect, invited to share their views, and remains in our care afterward.

Are there better ways?  Likely!  But it is also very likely that we will keep this way (voting) going for some time.  So our task is to make it as healthy a process as possible.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu.

Posted Sept. 4, 2007

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