Leadership and Culture (Part 2)

This entry is part 14 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the way in which culture influences leadership. Today I want to continue that theme and focus in a little more on how it affects a Chinese church.

What is Consensus?

Asian cultures favor consensus decisions over majority rule, but what is “consensus?” Many times a “unanimous” decision doesn’t really mean that everyone is in complete agreement. It means only that the participants agree to support a certain conclusion. They may have private misgivings but they refrain from voicing their objections for the sake of unity.

In a leadership group that values consensus there is a strong feeling that no decision can be accepted unless everyone voices agreement. If even one person objects, the discussion must continue. Normally if the most respected leaders support a certain direction, the others will support it unless they have very serious objections. So in this system, if someone objects it indicates that he or she has major objections that must be addressed. In effect each leader in the group has the power to stop the decision, but they understand that they should use their “veto” only in the most serious situation.

In contrast, more Americanized groups favor open discussion and debate. Everyone is encouraged to fully share his or her own thoughts, and at the end they vote on the outcome. The vote does not need to be unanimous, because the group operates on democratic principles. There is no need for everyone to voice agreement in order to move on. Those in the minority want to make sure that their ideas are heard, but they understand and accept that they might be voted down. The disagreements are out in the open, and the discussion can at times become quite heated.

Now imagine a leadership group composed of a mixture of these two types of individuals. Perhaps the majority are OBC leaders that value the consensus approach, but a few are ABC or more Westernized OBC leaders who favor open debate. The latter will say “This is what I think, but if the rest of you vote the other way I have no problem with that.” The former will say “We are not all in agreement! We must wait and pray until we can all accept the decision.” What a recipe for leadership paralysis! I have personally seen this situation delay a decision for months or even years.

The problem stems from the fact that the two groups have a different set of values about how decisions should be made. The more Westernized leaders just want to state their opinion, and don’t understand why the group can’t vote and move on. At times they may even take the other side in a discussion to make sure that the issues are thoroughly explored. But the more Asian leaders perceive the disagreement as a lack of harmony and refuse to go on until everyone voices consent.

Please note that I think that both systems can work well in a church leadership situation as long as the leaders are humble and meet the requirement for the first deacons (“full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” Acts 6:3). If the leaders are arrogant and self-centered, any system will have a lot of problems.

When is the Decision Final?

When I first arrived at CFC I had a difficult time knowing when board decisions were final. Often we would discuss something until there seemed to be a consensus, and then move on to another topic. Sometimes after the meeting I had to ask the board chairman, “Did we make a decision on that?” and occasionally he would say “I’m not sure.” There were other time when I was pretty sure that we had decided something, but then the next week the board chairman would tell me that a few board members expressed concerns to him and that the decision needed to be put on hold or even reversed. Following a consensus approach, some board members did not want to rock the boat by disagreeing in the meeting but instead waited to talk to the chairman after the meeting.

In a democratic approach, you can’t informally change a decision that was formally approved in the meeting. If you need to reverse a decision you need to have a vote in another meeting to make it official. But in a consensus approach things are more fluid. I had to learn that “final” did not always mean “final.” After I had been at the church for a few years, I began to be included in some of those “insider” discussions.

Since that time our board has established more fixed procedures for decision making. We still seek consensus, but we vote more often, and we record decisions and action items in the minutes so that we will know what we have decided. Our discussion in meetings is also more open. I would say that we are now operating with a blend of consensus and democratic approaches. In order to function effectively in a culturally mixed leadership group it is important for all the participants to have some understanding and appreciation for the other culture and for everyone to make an effort to meet in the middle.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • What have you observed about the decision making process in Chinese or other Asian churches?
  • How do you think that we can build the cross-cultural understanding to function effectively as a culturally mixed leadership group?
Series Navigation<< Leadership and CultureThe Jerusalem Council: Consensus Decision Making >>

One Response to Leadership and Culture (Part 2)

  • NKL says:

    1. I share many of your observations on the decision making process. Our church too is in some ways a blend of democratic and consensus approaches.

    One thing though that has troubled me is that as decisions become more important, there is less exercise of democracy. Discussions over what computers to buy can take over an hour, with everyone putting in their two cents. Opening up the church for different ministries such as a soup kitchen are a different story–these have to move pass the elder board and on in cases with use of building outside of regular church services and meetings, one veto on the board ends the discussion. Finally, the hiring of pastoral staff is virtually done by the elders. It is expected that the congregation will trust their decisions. Any attempt to open discussion on staff hirings is met with criticism.

    2. In our system it depends a lot on the Senior Pastor. If the senior pastor is not comfortable with conflict, than there will be little compromise on the major issues and major decisions. OBC’s will revert to the paternal pattern and leverage their seniority. ABC’s will voice their frustrations openly and, denied the opportunity to vote with their hands, in the worst cases will vote with their feet.

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"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." -- C. S. Lewis