It started with a simple request: "Will you come and moderate a special business meeting at our church?"
As presbyter for 30 churches in the San Francisco area, I agreed to assist. At the time I did not realize this would plunge me into a conflict that would nearly destroy a congregation.
A year after Bill was called to pastor this church, he wanted to change the by-laws to eliminate the periodic vote of confidence and establish an indefinite term of office for the pastor. He aggressively campaigned for a special congregational meeting to approve the idea.
Some in the congregation felt Bill's campaigning signified a shift from pastoral leadership to personal agenda. Rather than leading the church, they felt he was driving it. This polarized the congregation. By the date of the meeting, many membersâ€”tired of the politicized atmosphereâ€”had already left the church.
Bill had called me because he thought that a neutral party would restrain the hostility and allow the meeting to proceed with a more civil tone. After a bitter debate, Bill's proposal received a slight majority. I left the meeting saddened by the divisive spirit.
Those who opposed the decision soon left the church. The remainderâ€”bruised and demoralizedâ€”continued to dwindle. Income slipped to the point where Bill had to find a part-time job to support his family. Within a year this "pastor for life" resigned. Years later, this once vibrant congregation still struggles to survive.
Whether a church considers a building project, adding a service, or changing the by-laws, decisions often divide. People take sides. In the heat of debate, they often say unpleasant things to each other. Sometimes it takes years to recover.
My experience at Bill's church painfully reminded me of the times that I, too, had bungled the decision-making process. I look back at the strained relationships and frigid atmospheres to which I contributed, and I question whether winning the decision merited the cost. It doesn't have to be that way.
In recent years I've discovered that the process of making a major decision can actually be unifying and energizing. I've found several principles helpful in building that kind of unity.
Teammates wear the same color
The way we make a decision often proves as important as the result achieved, for it affects morale and commitment. Our culture accustoms us to the model of parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, this method usually entrenches individuals in their view as they seek to defend it, to disparage opposing views, and to persuade a majority to join their side.
A quantum shift occurred in my thinking when I realized that the discussion of issues does not have to be adversarial. Instead, it can be a team effort to find the right solution.
A few years ago I came across Edward de Bono's "six thinking hats" approach to making decisions, and I taught it to the leaders in our church.
Rather than taking sides during discussion, everyone works together at a given time on the same task. The colors of the imaginary hats represent different tasks. These include exploring advantages (yellow), problems (black), feelings (red), and alternatives (green). Because everyone wears the same color hat at the same time, the prevailing mood is cooperation.
Try another stance
Sometimes, no matter how hard I try to keep everyone on the same team, I find one person who persists in antagonism. At times, I've caught myself communicating intimidating messages to the dissenters:
"Where's your faith, anyway?"