Consensus or Majority

posted on June 01

by Rev. Fred Jordan

This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of the First UMC (Salisbury) newsletter, Ecclesia. It is offered here, as will follow up articles, for the edification of others across the Uwharrie District. Rev. Jordan is a retired Elder, former District Superintendent, and adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary.

Recently, my wife and I visited the tiny island of Malta.  It sits between Sicily and Tunisia at the narrowest point of the Mediterranean Sea.  For the ancient world, it occupied a strategic location for any nation wishing to control international trade. 

Malta also played an important role in first century Christianity. Saint Paul was on his way to Rome under military escort when disaster struck. His ship fell behind schedule.  Winter was fast approaching. Paul urged everyone to remain in a safe harbor until spring. Polling the crew, a majority favored pressing on in spite of the danger.  Paul lost that vote. The ship encountered a violent storm and sank along with its massive cargo.  Clinging to floating debris, everyone on board miraculously survived. They ended up on Malta’s sandy beach.  This story is found in the New Testament book of ACTS chapters 27 and 28. 

It is the only time the Bible records a democratically made decision. Most Biblical issues were settled after an honest effort to discern God’s will.  Individual voting does not always produce positive results.  The majority is not always right.

Sometimes voting is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order serves well in large meetings such as an annual conference session. But The Book of Discipline ¶252.3b recommends that local churches use a consensus/discernment model of decision-making.  Consensus building means prayerfully working together to find a solution everyone can support.

Sadly, the 2019 session of the United Methodist General Conference abandoned consensus building when it approved a petition known as ¶2553. This Book of Discipline paragraph allows unhappy congregations after a two third majority vote to disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church.  Every church member listed on the church roll can cast a ballot. If the two thirds super majority is met along with all other requirements of ¶2553, the church can leave our denomination with its property.  

Some congregations have already voted to disaffiliate. Others voted and chose to remain United Methodists.  Either way, churches that voted often experienced pain and broken community. The act of voting can tear churches apart.  It creates winners and losers. Even with a two thirds majority, a vote leaves part of the congregation feeling wounded.  In too many churches, old friends in Christ have become political enemies. 

Consensus building provides a better alternative. The consensus process begins with prayer. The first and only relevant question is what does God want for our church?  Next, objections and concerns are introduced openly and honestly.  Each issue is freely and lovingly examined.  Listening is key. Members search for common ground. New and better possibilities usually emerge.
Consensus building is a slow process.  A successful conclusion comes when everyone involved contributes to and agrees with the final solution.

As a United Methodist pastor, I had very few congregational votes in churches I served.  Each one concerned a major building project.  The church council worked hard to craft a proposal everyone could enthusiastically support.  Only when we had close to 100% congregational support did we proceed with confidence.

Consensus building might have saved those ancient mariners from a terrible disaster.  It might also save modern Methodists from making similar mistakes today.