Consensus is an important part of the UUCH Governance.  Are you interested in understanding how it works?

Consensus Considered

Mark Ginsberg

It’s important for us to have a sense as to how this Congregation came to be governed through consensus process, as opposed to, say, majority rule. It’s been many years now since the Committee of the Whole adopted Article IV of our Articles of Association, which details this process.

In March of 2004 we contacted as many of the founding members as we could via e-mail, and had them provide a few comments regarding their own personal experiences with consensus process before their involvement with UUCH, and they were also free to add whatever additional comments as they desired, including providing references to already-existing texts on consensus that they found particularly helpful. Responses ranged from providing us with enough of a personal outlook to fill a two-page word document, to our being told by someone that they get impatient with the process and with spending time talking about it. It’s this broad range of “attitudes”, and also our diversity of experiences and perspectives, that simultaneously make the process exasperating at times, but also so necessary to avoid arriving at decisions that might lead us to depart meetings feeling like “winners and losers.”

Now there may be some in our congregational community who don’t understand why we should care what our Founders have to say on this issue. It serves us well to consider the very well-known phrase coined by American philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The foundation of this Congregation is not the leveled earth and cement slab upon which we gather, but rather the cooperative endeavor begun so many years ago by folks who turned their vision into a solid reality. And please don’t misunderstand, this is not to say that we’re not a work in progress, but it’s hard to know where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been. So let’s see what some of these folks have to say.

Those that chose to state where they had experienced consensus before had done so through a variety of political and faith-based groups: peace and justice organizations, including feminist groups; neo-pagan and feminist theology gatherings; other UU congregations or UU committees, or their experience with the Quakers, who have been practicing consensus for almost 350 years.

Some also explained why they did not feel that following an ostensibly democratic procedure such as Robert’s Rules of Order would be suitable for our group. Some didn’t like groups where the majority ruled, finding that “if you were not part of the majority it made you feel powerless & disenfranchised.” One of us said that they had “experienced congregations which used…majority rule…where the minister and the board subverted the bylaws and did what they pleased with impunity.” They went on to say that they “did not (and do not) want that possibility to exist in this congregation.” Still another noted that in their lifetime, their “experience with the traditional democratic process (i.e. “voting”) has been that issues can become very polarized very quickly. You’re expected to vote “for” or “against,” often without fully understanding the viewpoints of both sides.”

Several people pointed out how particular facets of the UUA’s Principles and Purposes, almost demand consensus in their application. We would like to suggest that every single one of these principles can be related to the consensus process, whether it’s appreciating “the inherent dignity

and worth of every person”, seeking “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”, working towards “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth”, our engagement in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process”, “the goal of world community”, or our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

We can see similar echoes of this relationship between consensus process and our UUCH community when we examine certain phrases within our Covenant: when we “accept and support one another with open minds and open hearts, when we “respect each other”, when we “work together in a spirit of cooperation and harmony”, when we work “to create a welcoming and diverse community”, and when we engage in building “a liberal religious community that supports each individual’s search for truth and meaning”. Consensus process is the primary avenue through which we “support our Congregation by sharing our financial resources, our time and energy, our creativity and imagination, and our talents and skills.”

Now, we always spend a few minutes before our meetings discussing the “rules” of how we operate with consensus. But some might suggest that it is not the procedure itself that is vital to its successful employ, but rather, it is more important to understand the intention behind the process.

Consensus process is based on our “belief in [our] common humanity and ability to decide together.” It is in that recognition from which we draw our strength to persist in integrating our many “wisdoms” into a synergistic blend of multiple concerns over any particular issue we are deciding upon.

“The goal [of consensus process] is unity, not unanimity.” We are striving to leave our meetings feeling we have all worked towards creating thoughtful decisions that bind us in community, rather than divide us into the aforementioned “winners and losers”. As one congregant put it, we “want all voices to be heard and [seek] an answer that included all voices to… evolve… something that would be acceptable to all.”

In consensus process, “dissent [and] diversity of thought is valued”, and is not seen as an obstacle to be overcome through the tyranny of the majority. We encourage all to participate in the discussion at hand, and just as each of us wants to be heard, and truly attended to, while we are speaking, so must we make the sometimes-difficult effort to quietly, and thoughtfully, listen to others as they are expressing themselves. Side conversations are discouraged for this very reason, and also why we encourage folks to not speak more than once on a particular matter at hand until everyone who wishes to speak has had the opportunity to do so.

“The…facilitator…is not the usual person-in-charge.” It is the role of our facilitator to monitor the process and move it along, recognizing those who wish to speak, noting if someone seems particularly disturbed by something, encouraging the more tentative among us to have a voice, and to attempt to synthesize diverse concerns into a coherent motion that can then be agreed to. However, for the process to really work all of us must be facilitators…free to offer such syntheses, free to note when someone is upset or unusually quiet, and also free to call attention to someone who may be unintentionally dominating the discussion, or providing a distraction through side conversations.

One respondent suggested that our process ought to “seek the best solution for the community rather than one that is minimally acceptable to all or one that everyone can live with,” but I respectfully submit that there will be many times when a solution “everyone can live with” IS the best solution, if in the end we want to build community, rather than win or lose in our advocacy for particular positions.

In the book On Conflict and Consensus, from Food Not Bombs Publishing, it is written that “groups which desire to involve as many people as possible need to use an inclusive process. To attract and involve large numbers, it is important that the process encourages participation, allows equal access to power, develops cooperation, promotes empowerment, and creates a sense of individual responsibility for the group’s actions. All of these are cornerstones of Formal Consensus. The goal of consensus is not the selection of several options, but the development of one decision, which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution, not competition and attrition.”

We gather together, each as individual streams, lending our wisdom and voices to this process…one which will find us merging our streams into a wider river, in which we can together, in true community, as a circle of equals, flow into our common congregational future.

And now for the “rules of the game”…

The following guideline for the consensus process is from a document prepared for our Congregation by Barbara Green:

  • The question is stated simply and clearly, usually by the moderator or facilitator of the meeting.
  • Everyone is given an opportunity to express an opinion. Usually, no one speaks twice until everyone who wants to has spoken.
  • Based upon the discussion, the facilitator drafts a proposed decision, which is presented without defense, and asks if anyone disagrees.
  • If every member consents to the decision, the decision is adopted.
  • It is also possible for someone to “step aside” from a decision with which they are not in total agreement but do not feel it would be detrimental to the congregation. The consensus decision is then made as if that person were not present.
  • If anyone disagrees as a matter of conscience, the decision is blocked. Note that non-members are welcome to give input and opinions, but they cannot block consensus
  • If consensus cannot be reached on the statement as formulated, additional input and discussion is possible to develop another statement or a proposal can be made to continue the discussion at a later time. Otherwise, not reaching consensus tables the issue.
  • Modified consensus is also possible when necessary for a deadline or when further discussion seems inappropriate. Section IV. C of the Articles of Association states that if 85% of those present agree, a vote may be taken. To be adopted, 85% must then vote that the proposed action or decision should be approved over the objection of the dissenting member(s).Revised for the Web June 5, 2004; original version delivered at UUCH COW Meeting March 7, 2004.