Prepared for UUA.org by Jone Johnson Lewis, reporter; Margy Levine Young,
Presenters: Barbara Bates and Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley
Barbara Bates and Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley presented a workshop on
decision-making as part of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) University program. Beginning by defining
effective decision-making as the process of making a choice, they pointed out
that effective decision-making is systematic, balances risk and benefit
appropriately, is efficient, and is wise in that it uses the head and
the heart, using emotional systems and spirit. No decision, they stressed,
is purely rational.
Decision-making is distinguished from potential problem prevention and
potential opportunity achievement.
The main problem with decision-making is when a group jumps right in and
doesn't first agree on a shared process. There must be agreement on the process,
though the process can be adjusted as the process unfolds. There must also be
agreement on who to involve and how, although this too should be "held lightly,"
allowed to change as the process unfolds.
Before outlining the recommended process, the presenters noted some tips on
Decisions are usually about resources, processes, identity, or courses of
action. An important step is to clarify what the group is deciding about.
The method intentionally chosen for making the decisions—authority,
minority decision, majority decision, supermajority decision, consensus, or
unanimity—depends on three factors: time, importance, and whether the group
desires that the decision is implemented through compliance or commitment.
Consensus was defined as "when all members find a proposal acceptable as the
best course of action under the current circumstances and all things considered,
even though it may fall short of the ideal."
The presenters also noted that the "steps" below are not linear—from one
step, a group may decide to revisit an earlier step.
The model of discernment is one that is derived from St. Ignatius, and is
intended to involve the whole self, and the whole self of others, not just the
logical or rational side. It is intended to "create capacity to see to the heart
of the matter" and should be used within the context of vision and mission.
The steps are:
In discussion, the presenters commented that it's important when someone is
told that their idea will be considered later, that the idea is written down and
then scheduled later and that there is follow up. They also pointed out that
membership decision-making meetings aren't the only way to communicate or to
involve people. Focus groups can be helpful at some stages; small groups can
discuss at a deeper level than a very large group can. The size of the
congregation can affect how the process works: the larger the church, the more
the leadership has to be trusted and therefore has to be transparent. Processes
must be clear and open, people have to have opportunities to contribute and for
Participants were urged to work through task forces. Cooley said that she'd
favor getting rid of all standing committees, requiring all task forces to
justify themselves annually, and having clear charters for task forces.
Summarizing, the presenters encouraged participants to watch for the
Trust is essential. What builds trust?
Barbara Bates consults on organizational and individual performance. She
is a member of the board of directors for the Massachusetts Bay District of the
Unitarian Universalist Association, and a past president. She is a member of the First Unitarian Society in
Newton, MA, where she has served in many capacities including chair
of the board of trustees.
Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley has been the District Executive of the
Massachusetts Bay District since July, 2005. She has served congregations in
Detroit, MI; Chicago, IL; Stratford and Hartford,
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Friday, July 20, 2012.
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