Consensus: What Is It and Is It Necessary?

By J. Michael Shannon

I frequently hear of church boards and ministers that claim to do business and make decisions on the basis of consensus. Is this really what they do and is it really practical?

It is interesting that people differ significantly on the meaning of the word consensus. The Random House Dictionary defines consensus as “general agreement or concord; harmony.” Interestingly, the dictionary’s second definition is “majority of opinion.” When I have heard the term consensus used, the person usually means “unanimity.” How much progress can be made if we depend on unanimity? If this were essential there would have been no American Revolution and no elimination of slavery.

My friend Barry McCarty, who is both a certified parliamentarian and minister, taught me that one of the main reasons for Robert’s Rules of Order and other parliamentary rules systems is to ensure that the minority gets a voice—an opportunity to persuade people to their point of view. It does not, however, allow the minority to have veto power over everything they don’t like. There are times we must move forward with a simple majority or a supermajority, depending on the church constitutions and bylaws.

Presiding officers do at times use something called “unanimous consent.” It is used for items that are routine or obvious in order to prevent logjams. Even then, the presiding officer will ask if there are any objections. If there are, then the group must debate, decide, and act.

In the business world there is a process called consensus decision making. This process is based on coming to a compromise that is acceptable to all parties, even though they may not all agree on the specifics of the resolution. Sometimes this is called a “win-win,” but perhaps it should be called a “no lose-no lose.” However helpful this can be, it is certainly not true unanimity.

The Quakers have a similar notion. They believe that Christian people, under the guidance the Holy Spirit, can, if they listen properly, come to agreement. I once talked to an academic administrator at a Quaker college. I asked him if it was true that Quakers do everything by unanimous consent. He said, ‘Well, yes and no.” He said that many times those who are not ready to move forward will not obstruct others and therefore will simply abstain from voicing their opinion. This is not true unanimity. In fact, the Quakers actually talk about “unity, not unanimity.”


Must All Agree?

Think about the average church board, committee, or task force. If all group members must agree on everything, then all but one in the group is redundant. A healthy group will take the time to hear the different points of view, and when people have been fully heard, take a vote and move on. Some believe that if people talk long enough, everyone will eventually agree. Nothing is further from the truth. One of the best insights I ever received was this: conflict is not always the result of bad communication. Sometime it is the result of good communication. The only conflict that good communication resolves is the conflict that is the result of poor communication. There is no conflict quite as intense as the conflict that comes from learning what people really think.

What about ministers who desire unanimity? I talked to a minister once who was concerned that he did not have the support of his elders. I asked about the evidence of that, and he reported that one of his initiatives did not receive a unanimous vote. The fact was he received a 75 percent favorable vote, which is very strong. Still he was quite discouraged. Among ministers, if our definition of support is “unequivocal approval of everything we say or do,” then we are destined for depression and disappointment.

So, if a board held a vote and some people voted “no,” but they were in the minority, what is the responsibility of those who voted “no”? I don’t think we would expect them to lie or pretend they voted “yes.” Where is the honesty and transparency in that? A church can expect that the minority will not question the integrity of the majority, nor try to sabotage the program or initiative.

Even in the Bible we see that consensus was not unanimity. Even though the Jerusalem council reached a consensus on how to deal with the Gentiles, the acts of the Judaizers proved it was not unanimous.

Finally, we could say that unanimity is a very nice and helpful thing, but not easy and not necessary. Consensus, if we accept the dictionary definition, is possible and positive. So study, listen, persuade, evaluate, engage in principled compromise when necessary, but in the end make a decision.


J. Michael Shannon is professor of preaching at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.

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