Sacred Decisions written by Marcia Patton and Nora Percival reviewed by Susan Loucks
Sacred Decisions provides a case and framework for consensus decision-making in faith contexts – explaining the reasoning, providing tips, and filling out the picture with some case studies. It’s an interesting read for anyone committed to shared power in decision making and a good resource for newly forming groups that are deciding which method to use, as well as for established groups that are interested in moving from majority rule to a different model.
This slim volume begins with Patton and Percival explaining the advantages that consensus decision-making has over majority rule in terms of the quality of group dynamics under the two methods. They also provide a brief description of consensus process. Other chapters cover facilitation, tips and potential traps, and an exploration of timeliness. (Groups that place a high value on efficiency are encouraged to strengthen values of community care and good order.) Appendices include suggested group agreements, a sample agenda, and some tools for managing groups. The authors also include a short set of practice scenarios.
While one of the authors is a seasoned clerk in her Quaker meeting, many of the particular suggestions in this book are drawn from secular practices. For example, the book describes a detailed system for an association of small groups to deliberate and then make decisions together through small group representatives, which is different from the Quaker approach of having all members deliberate and make decisions together. Using a talking stick or having each speaker designate the next speaker are useful techniques in managing conversational flow, but are substantially different from Quaker practice of having the clerk recognize speakers, watching and listening to where Spirit might be moving in the room. The authors do mention in the text that Quakers do things differently, and that our methods might be challenging for some.
One part of the work that is highly applicable to Quakers, however, is the emphasis on making values visible and holding people accountable for hurtful speech or inappropriate use of power – which can happen in both majority rule and consensus structures. The authors use case examples to illustrate and explain the damage that can be done to a community when members fail to maintain standards that are shared and understood by all. Many Quaker communities struggle with the boundaries of tolerance and safety, and this book contains guidance for groups and clerks to follow when seeking to prevent or navigate breaches of community standards.
While the book is written for faith communities, most of its advice would also apply in secular contexts. Consensus is described as inclusive, collaborative, egalitarian, and as a method that allows space for new solutions and questions – all values supported by a large section of society. So why the word “sacred” in the book’s title? What makes this process holy? In the book’s introduction, the authors remind us of a foundational difference between the Quaker “sense of the meeting” and the secular “consensus process.” They explain Quaker decision-making in this way: “At root, it is not actually consensus, but rather looking for a decision from the absolute ruler of the community, God. It is akin to autocracy, with the difference that it takes everyone in the community to discern what the ruler, God, wants us to do.” I would have loved more descriptions of how this intention plays out in actual decision-making, as well as advice and encouragement for clerks about ways to keep a group focused on God while discussion is underway.
Quakers who want to dig deeper into the “why” of our decision-making practice may well find this book to be helpful in its review of ways that other faith communities are practicing alternatives. As the authors say, “Sometimes just the act of examining your current decision-making rules can improve them.”
Susan Loucks is a member of Pittsburgh Friends Meeting who lives in Pittsburgh, PA.
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