This book is an attempt to describe, analyze, and interpret the decision-making processes in the churches today. It also represents one part of a long-term effort to suggest means of improving the quality of decision-making in the churches.
It is based on the assumption that there is validity in the old saying "The beginning of wisdom is the understanding of reality." It is based on strong agreement with the contention of Daniel R. Grant, president of Ouachita Baptist University, that the politics of running government are no "dirtier" than decision-making in the churches. A longtime professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Grant warned a seminar sponsored by the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention that those who believe religion and politics do not mix have a "counterfeit religion."
The focus in this book is largely on the process (the "how") of decision-making in the churches, rather than on the structure (the "who"), but of course it has not been possible to ignore structural considerations completely. If there is a theme or a central bias, it is that the institutional expression of the universal church can be understood only if it is perceived as both a religious organization and a voluntary association. When the decision-making processes are examined, the characteristics of the voluntary association, in which every member has the right of withdrawal, are as numerous and as influential as the other characteristics one would expect to find in an organized community of committed persons who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and turn to the Bible for their articles of faith.
Before moving on to offer the reader a "road map" describing the route followed in this volume, it is only fair to say a word about the baggage carried by the driver who chose the route and who will describe the scenery.
Like every other book about the life and ministry of the Christian church, this one rests on a long list of assumptions about the nature of contemporary reality. It may be helpful to identify a dozen which particularly influenced the author in the selection of material and in the interpretation of data.
The first, and also the most important, is that God is at work in the world today. Therefore the most significant way in which man can improve the quality of decision-making is by allowing the power of the Holy Spirit to be at work in it, in both the structures and the processes. This is easier to write than it is to accomplish, since on many occasions equally dedicated and committed Christians will differ on the best method of insuring that the power of the Holy Spirit can guide the decision-making process.
This leads to the second assumption: an acceptance of the Christian paradox that man is both good and bad. (See pages 177-79 for an elaboration of the impact of this assumption.) The Holy Spirit can be seen at work identifying the sinfulness of man as he rejects the Good News, and also convincing man of God's righteousness.
The third assumption is that God calls man to live and die in this world rather than to reject the world. Those who believe God is at work in the world he created cannot reject that world and remain faithful to God.
The fourth assumption is also the reason for including this list of the author's assumptions. Frequently the most influential force that a person brings to the decision-making process is the frame of reference that he uses to analyze the issues, to suggest solutions to problems, and to choose among alternative courses of action. The repeated references to this subject that are scattered throughout the book, and concentrated in chapters 2 and 8, reflect the importance attached to this subject. These twelve assumptions reflect one part of the author's frame of reference.
The fifth assumption has been stated earlier. The decision-making processes in the churches can be understood only if the various institutional expressions of the universal church are perceived as both religious organizations and voluntary associations. This means that the decision-making processes of the churches will always be influenced by what is happening in the other institutionalized segments of contemporary society, which is one excuse for including the last chapter of the book. It also means that there is always a tension between the limits of authority (permission) granted to a leader in a voluntary association by the members, who retain the right of withdrawal if they disagree with the decisions or actions of the leader, and the call to faithfulness and obedience that restricts the freedom of the person who is a member of a called-out community of the followers of Jesus Christ.
The sixth assumption has several facets and is a recurring theme of this volume. This is the assumption that it is rarely possible to "solve" problems. Frequently decision-making means trading one set of problems for a different set of problems. Usually this involves choosing from a comparatively long list of alternatives in making this "trade," a list that is often longer than many leaders realize. Rarely, however, is it possible for anyone to predict with certainty which set of problems from that list will turn out, in the light of a subsequent evaluation, to have been the best set. The only certainty is that the future is filled with a degree of uncertainty that would terrify, and perhaps immobilize, many decision-makers if they could foresee it accurately. This basic uncertainty about which alternative will turn out to be the best choice from a future perspective suggests that two useful criteria in choosing from among several alternatives are contained in these two questions: (1) Which alternative will probably keep the optimum number of choices open for the leaders of five or ten or twenty years hence? (2) Which alternative course of action will involve in the selection process the largest number of people who will have to live with the consequences of that decision and with a new set of problems?
The seventh assumption is that in the real world there is a difference between programs of routine performance, in which certain actions are repeated, and strategies for planned change. This means that the ideas of scientific management, which trace back to Frederick Winslow Taylor and were described as "planning" by leading figures in the planning profession twenty-five years ago, do have relevance for improving the performance of an organization. The legacies of Taylor, which carry such contemporary labels as "operations research" and "systems analysis" can be utilized when the decision-making process is primarily concerned with improving the performance of an organization. The contemporary definitions of planning, however, are concerned with encouraging planned change and the maintenance of the necessary degree of organizational stability during this process of change. Most of the decision-making in the churches today is concerned with performance and not with strategies for change.
The eighth assumption, which undergirds much that is in this volume, is the conclusion that in most organizations, including all ecclesiastical organizations with more than thirty or forty members, the leaders do not constitute a representative cross section of the membership. The larger the membership, the greater the gap between the views and values of the leaders and those of the constituency.
The ninth assumption is closely related to the second and the eighth. The Christian doctrine of original sin helps explain the remarkably high degree of certainty many people feel about the correctness of their conclusions when they are making decisions for others. Among those most vulnerable to what can be described as "the First Commandment Problem" are preachers, presidents, politicians, planners, parents, publishers, authors, bishops, church leaders, and the decision-makers in any organization.
The tenth assumption is descriptive of the attempt to provide an overall frame of reference or context for this entire volume. This is the assumption that it is helpful if discussions of specific questions or detailed issues can be carried on within the context of a larger generalization, which may offer guidance on general policy considerations. Hopefully the contents of this volume are arranged so as to help the reader look at each issue from a larger and more inclusive frame of reference.
The eleventh assumption in this list is perhaps the most complex and certainly the most speculative! Frequently the decision-making process operates on three levels simultaneously. Some persons are operating on a descriptive level, trying to explain or to understand "how" it is. Usually it is possible (although this does not suggest that it is inevitable) to function on this level with a relatively high degree of certainty that what is said reflects reality accurately. The treasurer may state that there was a balance of $120 in the checking account as of this morning. That is how it is.
The next level concerns "why" it is that way. This moves the discussion to a more speculative level. At this level there is a sharp drop in the degree of confidence that what is said reflects present reality. Why is there a balance of $120 in the checking account?
The third level is the most speculative of all. This is the level at which the discussion moves to values. Is it "good" that there is a balance of $120 in the checking account? Or is it bad that the balance is $120?
It is assumed that the decision-making process can be improved if all the participants are functioning on the same level at any one point in the discussion.
It is also assumed that as the reader responds to the contents of this volume he or she will raise the question "Is my response on the level of how it is, or on the level of why it is that way, or on the level of values?" Hopefully there will be few occasions when the reader will find it necessary to disagree on the first level, with the descriptive statements or how it is. Inevitably there will be many occasions when the reader will disagree on the second level, about why it is that way. Many of the disagreements will be on the third level, on values. The reader's disagreements will probably be most creative and productive when they are concentrated on the top two levels.
The twelfth and final assumption is that if each participant in the decision-making process is consciously aware of the assumptions and the frame of reference that he or she carries into the process, this will improve the quality of decision-making in the churches.
As was pointed out earlier, the primary thrusts of this volume are intended to be descriptive and constructive. The first chapter is mainly descriptive, but a consistent effort has been made to offer an organized frame of reference for looking at how decisions are made. The perspective, or the frame of reference, of decision-makers is discussed more directly in the second chapter and, to a limited degree, again in chapter 8.
Three dimensions of the institutional and political nature of the decision-making processes of the churches are discussed in chapters 3, 4, and 5.
The greatest contributions of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) have not been in the area of the organic union, where the efforts have been thwarted by a serious neglect of institutional considerations, but in encouraging a variety of forms of interchurch cooperation. Several lessons from the experiences of others in this arena of decision-making are summarized in chapter 6.
The decision-making processes in the churches are still tremendously influenced by an emphasis on the allocation of financial resources and by the quality and style of leadership. These two subjects are the focus for chapters 7 and 8.
The final two chapters are devoted more directly to suggestions for improving the quality of decision-making. Chapter 9 offers a frame of reference for examining the related subjects of accountability and evaluation, while the last chapter suggests several major points of increasing tension during the years ahead.
This book is dedicated to a teacher who has been an inspiration to many seminary students. I am only one of hundreds who owe so much to this warm, scholarly, and very human person, who served as a model, a witness, and a teacher of the Christian faith.
Copyright © 1974 by Abingdon Press