UM & Global | Knut Refsdal: Consensus-based processes in the church

Original Posting At http://www.umglobal.org/2019/08/knut-refsdal-consensus-based-processes.html

Today’s post is by Rev. Knut Refsdal, District Superintendent for The United Methodist Church in Norway. Rev. Refsdal here explains the consensus-decision making model used at this year’s Norway Annual Conference meeting.

Given the situation the church finds itself in after the specially called session of the General Conference earlier this year, there was a great deal of excitement before our Annual Conference in Norway in June. It was therefore of great importance how the various cases were handled.

From the Cabinet’s point of view, we decided early on that we would try to facilitate consensus-based processes. This is a process where we search for a common opinion without using formal voting and where we engage in a genuine and respectful dialogue. This is important for a church. As a church, we are called to work against all forms of divisions so that God’s reconciled fellowship can become visible. We do this also in the way decisions are made.

Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees. We also say that we have reached consensus when one of the following happens: Either that all those who have the right to make decisions agree on a result or most agree and that those who disagree accept that they have been heard and that they can live with the result. Thus, agreement on a result is not limited to confirming the wording of a proposal. It may also be that a consensus has been reached on another result, such as agreeing to reject a proposal, referring a case to further processing or confirming that one can take different positions in relation to the case in question.

Consensus is a willingness to explore and develop alternative ways of decision-making than what are often called “parliamentary methods.” The latter aims to structure debates and proposals in such a way that they can lead to majority decisions. We know these methods very well in the church These are not methods that emphasize a goal of unity, nor are they methods that necessarily foster collaboration and broad participation and inclusion. I would say the contrary, these often promote factions with the result that one easily ends up with winners and losers in a process, which can be detrimental to internal relationships and make decisions more difficult to implement.

The goals for consensus processes are therefore: Better decisions, better implementation of decisions and better group relationships.

The following are some key principles that underpin consensus as a form of decision:

Inclusive and participatory: In a consensus process, everyone affected by a decision is included and encouraged to participate and contribute towards a final decision. Likewise, the goal is to address the needs of everyone involved in the process. Consensus is therefore a search for common opinion, understanding and will without the use of formal voting and where one strives for more voices to be heard.

Consensus seeking: Consensus is a process that seeks to reach as much consensus as possible on a decision. There is therefore a great deal of room for dialogue, consultation, exploration, questions, reflection and cooperation that increases respect and understanding.

Process-oriented: Consensus emphasizes the process towards a decision, not just the result. Therefore, all participants’ views and perspectives are respected and appreciated. This means that one invests a lot also in the way a decision is made, not just in the decision itself.

Collaborative oriented: Consensus is dependent on the willingness to co-operate. All participants are encouraged to help shape matters in such a way that it can lead to a result that safeguards everyone’s concerns. This is based on the belief that, by listening to everyone’s perspectives, the community is better able to make decisions that most people can agree on. Consensus therefore presupposes that everyone listens with openness and humility in order to also seek the insight of others, and this implies an attitude of respectful expectation since everyone is working towards a common goal. In the concept of consensus, there is therefore an expectation of a willingness to put the interests of the whole above one’s own preferences. In locked situations, therefore, all parties must be encouraged to work together to find solutions that everyone can live with.

Relationship-building: Consensus seeks to build good group relationships through decision-making. This is intended both to create a foundation for future decisions and to improve the implementation of decisions.

At our Annual Conference, there were three proposals on the table regarding the decisions at the specially called session of the General Conference: One proposal supported the Traditional Plan. Another proposal included a statement for full inclusion. A third proposal called for more theological studies. Many voiced their opinion in the dialogue and two more proposals were presented.

It was clear, during the exploring period, which often is the starting point in a consensus-based decision-making process, that there was a solid majority for full inclusion. But there were no ordinary votes on the proposals. Instead a consensus process was used to guide the conference to a broadest possible consensus on the matter. Every delegate was given orange and blue colored papers to indicate agreement or disagreement. The minority was given time to voice their concerns and the proposals were adjusted accordingly.

The people behind the different proposals were asked to work on a joint proposal, weighted by the consensus indications given. They came back with a single proposal that included:

  •  an agreement that the large majority wants full inclusion.
  •  a willingness to respect the view of the minority that wants to uphold the discipline.
  •  a strong determination to keep TUMC in Norway together.
  •  to establish a broad commission to seek a way to fully include LGBTQ+ persons and map consequences for the discipline, finances, organization and international connections.
  •  to deliver a report to the Annual Conference 2020 for deliberations and actions.

The church in Norway is not of one mind in this matter, but the will of the majority is clear and the majority is willing to make concessions to include as many as possible. This achieved a consensus and a broad platform for our upcoming work for the next year.


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