Church Skills: Decision-making

At my current congregation, we’ve done a lot of work to clarify who has the power to make decisions about particular things. For instance, under policy-style governance we use, the minister has the power to make decisions about almost everything that falls under “ministry.” Are we going to start a book group? I can decide. Is a program losing momentum and taking up a lot of resources? I can decide to end it. Are we going to add another service? Up to me. Do we need to hire a few singers to help round out the choir? Done.

This clarity is good for everyone. What’s even better is that we are working very hard to make sure that if a person has authority to make a decision, they have three other things as well: responsibility, accountability, and resources. So, if I want to add a new program, I need to pay attention to my responsibilities (Does it serve the mission and ends that the congregation has set? Does it fully comply with our policies? Do we have the resources to make it happen?) I also need to be accountable for my decision and its effects. The board monitors the ongoing health of the congregation and I’m accountable to them for my decisions and whether they help or hinder the congregation’s mission. And lastly, if I’ve been given the authority to make decisions, I have to have access to resources (money, staff, volunteers, space…) to support the decisions I make. It’s not fair to give someone responsibility and accountability for something and then refuse to give them the resources they need to make things happen.

I also have the choice to share the power of decision-making with others (to delegate.) We have a Ministry Council made up of Circle Coordinators who are responsible for particular areas of Ministry. Each of them has decision-making power in their area. The Worship Circle Coordinator can decide to invite guest speakers, to change the arrangement of the chancel, to experiment with new ways of acknowledging the congregation’s Joys and Sorrows. The Welcome Circle Coordinator can decide how many Greeters we need, when latecomers will be seated, and what is in the packet we give to newcomers. You get the idea.

I’m convinced that one reason a lot of churches have trouble recruiting leaders is that we don’t let them lead. Instead, we second guess every decision and call into doubt anyone’s right to decide anything without checking with each and every one of us. Because we have all seen power and authority misused our skepticism is understandable, but it doesn’t always serve us well. We have a right to question authority, but when we question everything it is a recipe for burnout in our leaders.  One of the things religious community can do for us is give us a place to explore issues of trust. A healthy congregation can be a place where we learn to offer trust and be trustworthy.

So, let’s say we’ve gotten to a place where we have leaders that can make decisions. We have a congregation ready to trust them to do that. And now a situation comes up that requires a decision be made. What needs to happen next? How does a decision get made? How is it communicated? When should a leader go for it–make a decision and see what happens–and when should s/he stop, call for input, involve others and go slow?

I don’t yet know all the answers, but I’ve learned a lot over the past two years with this lovely, busy, ambitious, caring, congregation. We’ve made a LOT of decisions in the past few months as we financed, purchased, and renovated a building. And I have learned some things I think would be useful to pass along, especially about when NOT to make a decision alone. (even if you have the authority to do so.)

I remember wishing that a little bell would ring whenever I’m about to decide something that I’d wish later I’d asked others about. And I’m really excited to share with you just that kind of B.E.L.L.–a little mnemonic device to help you recognize that a decision needs extra input, extra communication, and extra care. Here it is:

B=Buy-in: If the decision you are about to make necessitates significant buy-in, it’s time to slow down. For example, if you want to do something that needs funding, like buying new coffee equipment or something that takes significant volunteer energy, like an every-member canvass, it’s time to get more input and take extra time to communicate.

E=Effect: If the effect of your decision will be far-reaching or will set off cascading effects, you need to slow down. For example: if you are going to change the way the nametags attach to clothing, you should slow down. Everyone wears a nametag, and if you move from magnets to pins, you may have to deal with hundreds of angry people who don’t want to put holes in their shirts. It may seem like a small thing, but the effects are far-reaching. Or, if I decide to institute a second service and that decision will trigger a chain of other effects: the need for a second RE program and the choir to sing twice on Sundays, and the need to recruit volunteers to help lead another service, act as ushers, etc…it’s a decision that is too big to make alone.

L=Long-lasting: If your decision can’t be made on a trial basis or its effects are hard to reverse, you need to slow down. For example: Planting a tree. A tree is a beautiful thing, but they last a long time and no one wants to have to cut down a tree that was planted too close to a building or in a spot slated to be used for expansion. If your decision has long-lasting effects, slow down and get input.

L=Loved. If the decision you are making will change something that is beloved by members of the congregation, you need to slow down. Disposing of the electric organ that has not been used in your entire tenure? Make sure you know its story. If it was donated in honor of a beloved member or minister, it will take extra care and communication to explain why it’s time to let it go. If you are messing with something that even a small minority of the congregation holds very dear, take extra care with the decision.

That’s it. It’s good to think that decision-making is a church skill and we can learn how to do it better. I hope this little B.E.L.L. helps make it easier to know when a decision is too big or too sensitive to make alone. I hope it also helps us know which ones don’t “ring the bell” so we’re not bringing every little thing to a committee or to the Board or a congregational meeting. Go forth and make decisions!


One thought on “Church Skills: Decision-making

  1. Great post! I am glad I read to the end, because I when I started, my reaction was “Oh, yeah? Not in any congregation of which I am remaining a member”, but your B.E.L.L. is so on target! The authority to make a decision is just the beginning; if you do not bring everyone else along with you it is a recipe for conflict and anger. Respect and trust are so, so crucial.

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