All Opposed, Same Sign: Managing the Decision Making Process in a Rural Church
In the political world, we are told that 51% of the vote is a win. In fact, a politician will tour the country touting a 51% vote as a decisive and praiseworthy victory only later to question why almost half of the country is angry with the outcome for the next several years. Sadly, churches across America have bought into this same wishful expectation and have found themselves in the midst of major conflict as a consequence.
Small and rural churches are especially susceptible to this type of conflict. If almost half of a congregation in a small church disagrees with a decision, tension will exist – even if those in opposition are on the wrong side of the spiritual argument. So, how do you deal with the problem? Shouldn’t a strong leader press on despite a possible lack of faith in some members? There is a season for standing firm and forcing an issue, but not near as often as one would think.
A church is most likely to succeed under a unified vision. A vote of Elders, a Leadership Team, or the congregation that is clearly split is the canary-in-the-coal-mine of a breakdown of effective communication of vision. It may be a momentary lack of communication – not enough details on a given project, etc. This can be fixed much quicker than the alternative. Implementation of the action or decision can be temporarily delayed while a concerted effort is made to recast the vision and have an open dialogue with members about their concerns. It is important that people know that their voices are being heard – even if the leader goes a different direction later. A leader will gain respect when they are known to weigh all of the different sides of an issue.
Unfortunately, identifying the lack of a shared vision may be systemic – meaning that the problem began long before, and now people are confused or in disagreement about what the vision even is or if it is the correct one for the church. A wise leader will face this breakdown with poise and honesty instead of anger. In the short term, they must decide if the issue is an immediate necessity that must be forced through for survival (e.g. to cancel a program in order to pay important bills) or if there is in fact space to allow for an effective dialogue to take place before implementing changes.
In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul writes: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (ESV)
Many Christians have lost the eagerness to maintain unity and have traded it in for the cheap thrill of a momentary political victory in our churches. If an issue technically passes by a small margin but the pastor or leadership shows that they value unity more than the vote, they will not tout this as a victory. Instead, they will recognize that there is already a crisis in communication and begin listening to the heart of their people. Sadly, most leaders wait until they are on the losing side of a close vote to recognize this. As a personal example: our church makes it widely known that we will not force an issue that has a large block of opposing votes. We will not even accept the results if it is close, because unity means more to us than winning the vote. The calling is too great! Far too many churches close their doors every week because the few remaining members decided that “winning the argument” was more important than maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Remember, 51% is not always a majority.