Wednesday, April 22, 2020

LESSON 16 – Looking for Consensus but Finding Division

Welcome to More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom Blog, a 40-week journey through the new book, More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom, by Dan Busby and John Pearson. Each Wednesday, we're featuring a guest writer’s favorite snippet from the week's topic. Max Wilkins is our guest blogger this week for the fourth of four lessons in "Part 4: Epiphanies in the Boardroom.” And during this COVID-19 crisis, the role of the board becomes even more critical. We pray that your board will have God-honoring wisdom as you spiritually discern next steps.

LESSON 16 OF 40 - Looking for Consensus but Finding Division
Finding consensus on challenging issues requires deft handling and a flexible approach by the board chair.

THE BIG IDEA FROM THE BOOK: In Lesson 16, the authors note that difficult or challenging board decisions are best handled with a consensus-building process. While the tools of voting and Robert’s Rules of Order may be prescribed in the organizational bylaws, an adept board chair can utilize these tools within an open, thoughtful and fair process to enable the board to achieve consensus even in divisive situations. 

A board operating with the right purpose (to honor the Lord), the right people (those with a Kingdom mindset who seek the best for the organization), and the right agenda (including the right timing for challenging issues), in the hands of the right board chair (who is sensitive not only to the Holy Spirit, but also to the individual board members’ thoughts and concerns) can utilize the right approach (tailored creatively to the context and realities of each individual decision) to arrive at this consensus. 

MY FAVORITE INSIGHTS from Lesson 16, pages 91-96: 
 “Consensus is a spirit or sense of the board. It is not a formal action. It is a process that seeks widespread agreement among group members.”
• “There is no single right approach for every agenda item in every meeting. Sometimes, while the board meeting is in progress, the chair will sense the Holy Spirit’s leading—and call a holy time-out. …It may also involve prayer!
• “Periodically re-visit the consensus-reaching and decision-making processes and make adjustments as necessary.” 

Prior to coming to my current position at TMS Global, I was the Lead Pastor for more than a decade in a large inter-denominational church. The church’s elder board operated on a consensus model. Upon assuming the pastorate of this church, I was told by many leaders in the church world that a consensus model of elder leadership simply would not work in a church of several thousand people. 

The principle concern seemed to be that one person could delay or derail any plans at will, creating stagnation. A “majority rules” approach was typically suggested. Despite these concerns, the church operated well using the consensus model. I believe there were a few key reasons we succeeded: 

• As the authors said, having the right attitude is key. Our elders lived out the sense of Romans 12:18, “As far as it is possible for you, live at peace with everyone.” 
Having the right people is also critical. Our elders, carefully selected by the congregation, understood that they had to play their “trump cards” selectively and carefully. Non-egocentric leadership is required for a consensus model to flourish.
• The right approach is vital. Making space for prayer, for discernment, for Holy Spirit “interruption” and for each voice to be heard, is far more important than motions, and Robert’s Rules of Order.

In my 11 years with that church, there were only a small handful of times that one elder stood in opposition to the emerging consensus of the group. I remember vividly the final time that happened. The elder who was a hold-out said, “I’m sorry, I know I’m alone in this, but I just have a strong sense in my spirit that this is not the correct action at this time.” 

Our excellent board chair asked us to reflect as a group. “Do you remember the five or six times over the last decade that one member has held out against the group?” We began to recall those few situations out loud. Then the chair asked a critical question: “With the benefit of hindsight, do any of us now believe we arrived at the wrong conclusion in those few situations?” One by one, we all acknowledged that in each case, the lone holdout had prevented us from making a bad decision. Time had shown the wisdom of their positions. 

The key does not lie in the decision-making system itself. Majority rules, Robert’s Rules of Order, a consensus model, or even a unanimity approach can all be used effectively to arrive at decisions. The key is the process by which these tools are used. 

The TMS Global Board votes, and the majority rules. But in the process leading up to a challenging rebrand and name change a few years ago, our spiritually-sensitive board chair sensed that we were going to need consensus for this essential change to be embraced throughout the organization. Thus, she made time repeatedly for Holy Spirit “interruptions,” had numerous pauses for deep times of prayer, and, when consensus seemed to be eluding us, even made a place for brand new ideas to be offered up extremely late in the process. 

As consensus finally began to emerge, she called a stop to discussion and simply stated, “I want to go around the room and ask each person to speak honestly for yourself in response to this question: If we go forward with this plan, can you live with wholeheartedly supporting it?” 

One by one, each member of the board, some while still expressing slight reservations, asserted that yes, they agreed in spirit to support the consensus of the whole. This thoughtful and fair process not only resulted in a broad consensus, it also transformed a potentially divisive and problematic decision into something the entire board celebrated and with great joy presented to the larger community and stakeholders.


MAX WILKINS is the President/CEO of TMS Global, an inter-denominational global mission agency headquartered in Norcross, Ga. Prior to becoming CEO of TMS Global, Max served as a local church pastor for 30 years, planting and leading churches in Florida and Hawaii. He has also taught and preached in more than 40 countries. Max is married to Dorothy (Dee Dee) and they have two adult children. He recently received a post-doctoral Diploma in Organizational Leadership from Said Business School, Oxford University. He is also a huge fan of all things University of Florida. Go Gators!

• Review the process my board uses to arrive at decisions. Is there room for flexibility? Are we working towards decisions or towards consensus?
• Can I think of one tweak to our current board decision-making process that might create a more open, thoughtful and fair process, thus leading to greater buy-in to tough decisions?
• Visit the ECFA Knowledge Center and read and share the short chapter, Lesson 16, “Looking for Consensus but Finding Division.”

April 29, 2020, watch for the commentary by Philip Boom on Lesson 17, “Botched Executive Sessions Are Not Pretty. Don’t assume that your executive sessions will automatically be excellent.”

BULK ORDERS: Click here. For more resources and to download the book's Table of Contents, visit the book's webpage.

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