In seminary I learned always to work for consensus. Likewise, I learned never to take a vote. There is nothing wrong with voting when a discussion has brought differences to the surface. Still, consensus—the group “nod” that means we know that we agree and don’t need to vote—can be a pleasant gift to community, if and when it is possible.
Constitutionally, I tend to agree with people. I like harmony, dislike conflict, and have a personality that wants to smooth edges wherever I go. I feel that everyone has something to contribute, and thus I try to include every point of view in whatever statement I issue on any subject, even the matter of what is for dinner. My own children will confirm my tendency to say yes to whatever anyone wants to eat for dinner and then not to know what to do when they all want something different.
Three Churches in One
I have had to learn new behaviors. My very diverse Miami congregation refuses to agree on anything. Indeed, there are three congregations in one here, with different tastes, opinions, and cultures. One is the “little church across from the country club,” where everyone knows everyone else. That church is friendly and not flashy; it does not need hired soloists and has difficulty handling diversity. Another is the “coral cathedral” of the arts: anything less than a million-dollar pipe organ is not good enough for the musical tastes and desires of this parish. These parishioners resent the little church’s thriftiness and lack of sophistication as much as the little church resents their luxurious tastes. The third church is the “outer galactic church of the edge” (we came up with these names ourselves), which cares more about outreach than either music or fellowship and thinks that arts programs should be shelved in favor of assistance to the poor.
No third of the church has enough respect for any of the others. Members often publicly insult each other. When we needed to carry out an accessibility project involving a wheelchair ramp, the “professional” types of the coral cathedral wanted to do it to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) code. They wanted to obtain city permits. The “populist” types of the little church were insulted: they thought that all the donated time they had given over the years was being disparaged. This anger managed to delay the project for seven months. Two men—one in a wheelchair, one not—remain angry at each other.
The Sound of a Church Splitting
One very sensitive financial issue was decided by a 16-15 vote after 31 meetings in which 35 people regularly participated. The issue concerned the church’s endowment and whether it should be managed internally or externally. Internal management won the day, but this has allowed the people who preferred outside, professional management to pick away at those who chose the old-fashioned way of doing church business—without paying a fee. In this and many other matters, there is no right answer. Professional management of large sums of money that are to be given away in grants is a good thing. Likewise, congregational participation and hands-on volunteerism are good things. Competing goods demonstrate our diversity, over and over again.
I wasted a good bit of leadership energy on developing consensus. I sometimes let issues remain in discussion for five or six meetings, hoping that consensus might arrive. I also internalized a lot of anxiety about my consensus “tool” not working. It really did bother me when people insulted each other in meetings. It really did bother me that they thought it had to be “their way or the highway.” I could hear the church splitting in my heart. And I was just as willing to make macaroni and cheese, red spaghetti, and chicken all for one meal as I had been at home with my now-grown kids. I was convinced we could do something for everyone. But the diverse factions chose against such compromise and abundance; none wanted the other to be pleased.
Learning to Love the Vote
When it became clear to me that consensus had failed—that we could not keep people happy even with three different dishes on the table—I realized that I had to change my behavior and leadership style. I wish I had changed sooner; it took me almost two years to let go of my hope for consensus and the underlying hope for diversity.
You can teach an old dog new tricks. Thus, while I grieved for harmony in diversity, I changed my behavior. First of all, I learned to love votes and to take them with a smile on my face. Then I discovered that the majority of the people were not on the edge of these separate congregations so much as in the middle of them. Only a few in any of the three identifiable circles were extremists. It became very important to silence the extremists on behalf of the centrists.
When a vote resulted in winners and losers, I would act happy, not sad. I would then activate the centrists to create compromises and directions that appealed more to them than to the extremists. This was new behavior for me because I really did worry about the losers. They were hurt. They were excluded. They might take their marbles and go home. But the more I worried about their hurt and their marbles, the more I fed their extremism. Thus, learning to love the vote has been a positive breakthrough. I have withdrawn oxygen from the extremists; their fires burn less brightly.
More Space, Less Anxiety
Second, I have learned how important it is to create voting situations that are smart. Not “This congregation opposes the war in Iraq” so much as “the members of the Just Peace group oppose the war in Iraq and are taking signatures from the membership after the service today.” When unity of the whole is impossible, creating space for actions that do not involve the whole can be very important.
The third way I changed my behavior was to learn the strange art of self-differentiation. Self-differentiation is what Ed Friedman, the now-deceased guru of congregational studies, advised for clergy when he spoke of a “non-anxious presence.” I always had too deep a mother-hen streak to do that well. My art was inclusion and presence. I thought that not to show a little anxiety meant not to care.
I never experienced much anxiety at all in ministry until I ran into genuine diversity of opinion under one roof. Being anxious about this diversity was indeed my original modus operandi. Now I am teaching myself how not to be anxious about something that has very little to do with me. I am still drawn into triangulation over the issues, but most of the issues we face are between members, each of whom want me on their side. Staying out of the middle is now my favorite dance step.
Hospitality for Some
Fourth, I have begun to express genuine disapproval for extremists who care more about their own opinions, culture, or tastes than about their fellow members. And I am letting go of those who can’t “share.” This fourth behavior has been very difficult. I have always assumed that if a member leaves a church it means I did something wrong.
I know that isn’t logical. I know that the boundaries in that kind of thinking are badly drawn. But I still feel that it is my job to get my arms around the whole parish and to make the sacred space safe and comfortable for them. I see that as my call. They are the members; it is their church. I am not without responsibilities regarding hospitality, especially the creation of a hospitable place. Developing disrespect for extremists and antagonists has involved traveling a long road. Once wanting hospitality for all, I have come to be satisfied with hospitality for some.
Sticking to our Core
Fifth, I have found that prayer—accessing God—is the best way to avoid triangulation. God is never found on one side or another of these wickedly silly debates. That is important for me and important for the
parish to know. Prayer accomplishes the delivery of that message. We can act without consensus in the name of our majority’s best understanding of what God wants.
Sixth, when I do get free of negative reactions and postures, I do best to spend my time focusing on issues of core values. Because the parish includes extremes of both liberal and conservative, both open and closed people, I have had to be careful to take care of the center. The two edges each contain about 10 percent of the people. That means that the other 80 percent are in the center. Focusing on them, rather than the loud, demanding edges, helps the congregation stick to its core. There remain some things on which we all agree, and we head for them every proactive minute we get.
Diversity is Not Easy
Seventh, I have come to more deeply appreciate and accept the very diversity that has caused all this pain. Over the years, I have found it easy to be a pastor to people with whom I do not agree. Some of my best friends are Republicans. Currently, though, the culture wars are so extreme that I can’t reach to my “other” side without being suspect. There is something very strained now in this parish; stretching my kind of arm all the way around it is not as easy as it was 10 years ago. The culture wars are increasing in decibel level. Ironically, the genuine diversity we have achieved makes hospitality, and therefore governance, very hard.
I have to remind myself often that this country elected our president in a nearly tied election. That election fell apart in Miami, Dade County, where I minister. The diversity of opinion about where to lead the country is real. It is also the context in which I work. Consensus will not always be possible. Having winners and losers is not the ideal situation. So we must vote, and simply take turns winning and losing. Absent consensus, that becomes my objective—to rotate the losses and victories so that no one constituency starts to own everything.
In Search of Balance
Eighth and finally, I spend much time teaching people about themselves. Some will not realize that moving the choir (that has now grown to 59 voices) to the front of the sanctuary will be disruptive. Some want their worship just the way it has always been, whether or not the choir explodes out of the choir loft. Does that mean we shouldn’t make changes? Of course not. But we need to balance these changes. When the choir loft people “win,” there needs to be a “win” for the sacred stability crowd who really do feel threatened when a new hymn or hymnal or liturgical practice shows up. This is especially true when the two sides are close to being equal in numbers. When we took a straw vote one Sunday, 151 people wanted the choir in the front and 140 wanted it in the back.
For my own mental health, I have had to learn not to care so much about these squabbles. For the sake of the gospel and my call to serve it, I have had to learn to be cunningly hospitable, on a rotating basis. For the sake of the diversity that I do believe is part of God’s reign, I have had to abandon consensus.