Decision-making patterns have changed throughout the 400-year history of the Mennonites. Early patterns (Swiss) were generally informal and focused on the Gemeinde, the local community of faith (Peachey). Larger gatherings promoted consensus on basic questions of faith and church life through discussion, debate, and eventual agreement (e.g., the Schleitheim Confession). Dutch and North German Mennonite patterns tended to be more leader-centered, possibly dictated by the need to bring unity to a fragmented people, especially following the Münster uprising.
Church polity or patterns of church government and theological orientations influence decision-making procedures. In the first half of the 20th century decision-making power and authority was often centralized in strong leaders. in recent decades the democratic patterns of government prevalent in society have strongly influenced both expectations and styles found in congregations, district conferences, and denominations.
A renewal group which emerged in the 1950s sought to introduce a community-based consensus form of decision-making particularly among the Mennonite Church (MC) congregations. Drawing on the writings of Lewis Benson, a Quaker writer, they argued for a corporate discernment process which encouraged consensus rather than voting and engaged the membership of the congregation in a process of discernment. The "Concern Pamphlet" group published a variety of materials encouraging more direct involvement of the laity in decision-making. Calvin Redekop's essay, The Church functions with purpose, is a good illustration of the focus and tone of the emphasis in that era. In the 1980s writers are also calling for a process of mutual discernment or using New Testament terminology a "binding and loosing model" which takes the community of faith seriously (Ratzlaff, Harder, Lederach, Miller, Bauman, Jeschke, etc.).
The Anabaptist and Mennonite concept of the church envisions a community which seeks God's will together. Lederach notes that the New Testament calls Christians "to discern the truth, what is virtuous, what is good and how to behave . . ." (p. 118, NIV). The concept of "binding and loosing" (Matthew 18:19-20) is seen not only as a mandate to practice church discipline but as a decision-making model for the church (Retzlaff, 56). The discernment model will vary depending on the issue under consideration. Identifying church beliefs, choosing leaders, decisions related to organization or program -- each will call for variations in procedure.
Two New Testament terms which give substance to the meaning of discernment are krino which means to judge, to decide, or to assess, and dokimazo which means to be watching or alert. Romans 12:2 encourages a nonconformed life, the content of which is discovered by a discernment (dokimazo) process, "to test and approve what God's will is" (NIV). Rather than going to the law courts Christians should find a solution in the Christian community (diakimo, I Corinthians 6:1-8). Paul prays that the Philippian Christians' "love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best. . ." (Philippians 1:9-11). Discernment also happens when the broader church confers together as in Acts 15, permitting a consensus regarding expectations for the Gentile church community to emerge.
The authority for engaging in a process of discernment to discover God's will on various issues of church life is rooted in such passages as Matthew 18:18-20 (binding and loosing) and rests in a belief that the gathered community through searching the Scriptures together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can determine God's leading for a particular time and place (Bauman). An added dimension which gives shape to decisions is the recognition that history and tradition set in the context of current needs and practice are significant factors as well.
Models for decision-making will vary depending on denominational and congregational theology and polity, the nature of the issue to be addressed, the size of the group, previous decision-making experiences and how the decision-making task is perceived. The emphasis may be on the importance of the democratic procedure and the parliamentary process, or on group dynamics, or on community discernment, or on a combination of these foci.
A stress on the importance of the organization and the parliamentary process has its roots in the North American democratic model with its emphasis on the right of each person to participate in running the affairs of the organization. Values are upheld such as the right to vote or to express an opinion, following an orderly procedure (using Robert's Rules of order), the importance of representation in decision-making, having choices in the election of people to offices, in short giving due attention to the parliamentary process including the majority vote. Gaining a majority opinion with majority rule appears to hold more value than achieving a common mind or consensus.
When group dynamics become a central focus in decision-making stress is placed on such issues as the role of the leader, power systems in the group, helping the group to work together, encouraging all people to participate. Consensus rather than voting is employed as a way to arrive at decisions. Group building and group nurture or maintenance are significant values. People often consider the process to be as important as the end result and at times sacrifice substance in favor of attention to process.
The discernment model of decision-making has as a central goal finding God's will for the issue at hand. This model does not ignore good parliamentary procedures, group process, or people, but it emphasizes the importance of finding God's will in relation to the issue in question. The goal of the decision-making process is not to discover the majority opinion but "the mind of Christ." New Testament patterns are cited as illustrations on how decisions can be made and on principles to be used in coming to a decision.
Ideally groups can draw on elements of all three perspectives depending on the issue at hand, on group size, on previous patterns familiar to the group plus other factors. Groups may well develop a range of patterns to serve their varied decision-making needs. Elements in a good decision-making process include the following (1) a clear statement of the problem or issue which requires action; (2) adequate background information to focus the scope of the decision and to provide a basis upon which to explore alternatives; (3) development of a statement of alternative solutions; (4) an exploration of the various alternatives and their implications; (5) making the decision with a timetable for implementation; (6) depending on the nature of the decision, a review process may be indicated for a later date. Planning a meeting sequence is often helpful as well. The first meeting is a time to define the issue or problem and to give background information. The next meeting is a time to explore options, hear concerns, objections, positive responses, and to prioritize desirable solutions. The final meeting moves to a solution and implementation of the decision. In situations where documents are being written (e.g., position papers) an additional one or two meetings may he needed to review and revise documents.
Lederach, Paul M. A Third Way. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980: 114-22.
Harder, Helmut. Accountability in the Church: a Study Guide for Congregations. Winnipeg: Conference of Mennonites in Canada, 1985, esp. Resource Essay II by Peter Retzlaff, "Authority for binding and loosing," pp. 54-57.
Bauman, Harold. Congregations and Their Servant Leaders. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1982: 7-16.
Claassen, Willard. Learning to Lead, Christian Service Training Series. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1963: 79-90.
Anderson, Philip A. Church Meetings that Matter. Philadelphia and Boston: United Church Press, 1965.
Lippitt, Gordon L. "Improving Decision-making With Groups," in Group Development, Selected Reading Series One, National Training Laboratories (1961): 90-93.
Miller, Paul M. Leading the Family of God. Scottdale, Pa.:Herald Press, 1981: 79-88.
Jeschke, Marlin. Discipling the Brother. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1972: 163-39.
Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1981: 118-39.
Redekop, Calvin. The Church Functions with Purpose: an Essay on Church Organization. Focal Pamphlet no. 11. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1967.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 219-221. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Lebold, Ralph. "Decision-making." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D37ME.html.
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