Group Decision-making

I was asked to speak to our church’s “Emerging Leaders” class about decision-making by groups. Specifically, there are three questions to answer:

  1. Why teams or committees in the church make decisions?
  2. How teams make decisions?
  3. How and why decisions are made by teams or committees get passed on for further approval?

First, full-disclosure: I work in a Baptist church. Baptists believe in democracy – my mom said that the truest expression of democracy, warts and all, is in a Baptist church. Members (actually, only those present) get to voice their opinion regardless of how much they’ve contributed to the church financially, how informed they are on the subject, or how much the result of the decision will affect them and their family. Everyone gets a voice – and that is very good and very bad.

Rather than digress into an explanation of the very good and very bad (which pretty much everyone can figure out for themselves), let me speak to these three questions.

  1. Why do churches have committees to make decisions?
    1. The Baptist church is a democracy: as explained above, decision-making is shared by the church. Now, the entire church cannot decide everything so it delegates some decisions to committees. Some decisions are made by the committees and some are passed on (see question #3). Sharing the burden (or blame) helps unify the church.
    2. “The Wisdom of the Crowds:” providing a venue for people with different life experiences to share their wisdom can help make decisions more informed and thus have better results. I frequently remind my committees that “right now we’re operating from a basis of ignorance and getting more information will help us make a better decision.” Decision-making from a base of ignorance is never good – get as much knowledge and wisdom as possible.
    3. Corporate buy-in: having as many people as reasonably possible in the decision-making process will mean that later on, those decision-makers can be “emissaries” to others who question the decision. It also means those decision-makers will support the decision verbally and financially when the time comes for them to speak out (or else they’ll be viewed as hypocrites and not trusted by other members).
    4. CYA (cover your ass): this is not a polite term in church but it is exceedingly true. Smart leaders will use officially sanctioned committees to make decisions that might cause heartburn in a handful of individuals. Those individuals who have their own agendas will find it harder to fight the group. An individual decsion-maker can be hounded (sometimes mercilessly) by a person with an agenda. Individuals who question the group decision in a public arena can be asked why they did not go to the committee rather than air their grievance to the world.
  2. How do teams make decisions?
    1. The best decisions made by groups are by consensus. Sometimes a vote necessary for an official record. However, shy away from official votes when possible. Ask the members of the group if everyone is in agreement. Then, when you do need to take a vote, those official votes will have that much more power because members are willing to put their opinions in the record.
    2. Decision that are made by split or almost split decisions are not valid. Decisions should have a clear majority (at least 66-33) in order for them to have full support of the committee. Then, the committee must share and explain their decision with others so that there is further and continued buy-in.
    3. Point of clarification: some decisions should be made by a person for one of several reasons
      1. Expediency: there is not enough time to have an official meeting. In those cases, if the decision is minor then the leader can make the decision. Sometimes a leader may want or need to consult one or two others for their input but ultimately the decision will be made by that person.
      2. Leadership: “follow we” is not what Jesus said. Leadership is given to us by God. Sometimes leaders just need to make a decision and get out there and lead. Leadership is not “finding a parade and jumping out in front of it.” Leadership is realizing that sometimes people are following you and sometimes people are chasing you – sometimes at the same time! Leadership is a topic for another blog.
  3. How and why decisions that are made by teams get passed on for further approval?
    1. Authorization: some committees are not authorized to have the final say in an issue. A team will pass on their decision with a recommendation to the next group in line when they are required to do so. The next group may or may not follow the prior group’s decision and/or recommendation.
    2. Publicity: having a decision made by the entire congregation or a very large group provides the opportunity to “sell” or “market” the decision. That way, more people will be aware of the decision, can tell others about it, and when the time comes, can support it financially.
    3. Tricky issues: matters which could affect a member or group of members might need to be dealt with in an official capacity (depending on the matter and the people it affects). Some people accept negative news better than others; those who do not accept bad news are well-known and when a decision involves them, a group decision can help (see CYA above).

All that being said, let me tell a story that happened in a church. A certain member had a major contract with the church which annually cost the church over $40,000. I wanted to put that contract out to bid and I was authorized to do so but I knew how news would be received. I asked the church’s Finance Committee to “order me” to put this out to bid (see CYA). Four companies bid on it and that member’s bid came down 35% even though it was the same contract and two other bids were almost identical. I was authorized to make the final decision but I asked some elders in the church to help with the decision. They realized this was a tricky issue and they asked the Finance Committee to make the decision. The Finance Committee wrestled with this for over an hour before giving it to the member. The result is that about a dozen church leaders felt that this member was taking advantage of his church and his influence waned. The right decision was made, the member was put on notice that his prior actions were unacceptable, and the church got a $14,000 discount on an annual contract.

I need to go now, the contractor for a small renovation project needs me to make a decision. I’ll handle that one myself – no committee need get involved!

Lead On!