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998 UUU - Effective and Spiritually Based Decision Making
Governance for Congregations, Leadership Development

Prepared for by Jone Johnson Lewis, reporter; Margy Levine Young, copy editor

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 decision-making:

  • Agree on the process ahead of time.
  • Avoid the rush to judgment, the rush to closure .
  • Use clear and jargon-free language to reduce anxiety about the process.
  • Listen in order to understand—hear what's behind the words being said.
  • Use a flip chart or other means to transcribe the words said. People will feel heard, this minimizes repetition (and time), and it builds trust.

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:

  • Framing: The group decides what it is trying to decide, and looks at the purpose and importance of the decision.
  • Grounding: The group attends to the principles and values involved in the decision.
  • Shedding: The group "sheds" tangential or less relevant issues, and where members set aside their preconceived notions, or at least set these on the table for transparency.
  • Rooting: The group listens to stories, history, and experience, listening to elders within the congregation about the roots of the current situation and past experiences in trying to solve the problem. The group also listens to those in the larger community beyond the church who may also have important stories to tell.
  • Listening: The group hears from and strives to understand those affected by the decision, in the leadership, in the congregation, and outside of it. Those directly involved should also listen to the "still small voice within" in considering others. At this point, the group will likely discover new options.
  • Exploring: The group looks at possible options, relates them to the agreed guiding principles, values, roots, and understanding, and then reduces the options to a few that best fit the situation.
  • Improving: The group strives to make each option more attractive to people, and less risky.
  • Weighing and testing: The group defines the "musts" and the "wants," and weighs them. "Musts" are those objective criteria, that is, those which are required, measurable, and realistic. "Wants" are everything else—and the group prioritizes these subjective criteria, consulting key stakeholders and testing the anxiety level in reaction to the options.
  • Closing: The group uses the decision-making method (consensus, majority, etc.) that they have agreed to use, and makes the decision. It's important to "let the decision be done."
  • Resting: Where the group "holds it close," evaluating the process and the responses. Is there anxiety? Is there a sense of rightness or wrongness about the decision? If the decision doesn't seem right, the decision still stands—and the group now may have to make new decisions about how to proceed, "harvesting the lessons" of the discernment process as it was carried out.

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 feedback.

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 following:

  • Significance of the change (amount, type, quality)
  • Prevailing culture of the congregation
  • Level of trust

Trust is essential. What builds trust?

  • Ability to demonstrate results
  • Integrity—"walking the talk"
  • Showing care and concern

Resources Recommended by the Presenters

  • Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen. Discerning God's Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church. 1998.
  • Charles Higgins Kepner and Benjamin B. Tregoe. The New Rational Manager: An Updated Edition for a New World. 1997.
  • Quinn Spitzer and Ron Evans. Heads, You Win! How the Best Companies Think. 1997.

About the Presenters

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, CT.

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