We gathered around long tables, pushed close to form a square. The smell of microwave popcorn drifted across the room, turning the mind to movie night or afternoons at a neighborhood carnival. I sat next to an 18-month-old boy with a deep love of Elmo and animal sounds. His dirt-stained feet were pushed against my leg in adorable toddler fashion. “This is my kind of meeting,” I thought.
And then we moved from the minutes to the financial report without any motions, seconds, or votes. “This is really my kind of meeting!” It may be a very unBaptist thing for me to admit, but I’ve always found the Robert’s Rules formality of approving minutes to be just a bit (read: grossly) unnecessary. But, of course, Robert’s Rules have not been employed by the Baptists due to the difficulties of agreeing upon meeting minutes (although I’m sure someone out there has a conflictual minutes story).
The Mennonite way of business is consensus. You can read guidelines for consensus from the Mennonite World Conference here. None of the business at the Fellowship’s regular meeting required anything other than presentation and basic deliberation. In the family-style setting, if no one speaks up, consensus is assumed.
Even during this meeting, however, the hard work of consensus was acknowledged. The congregation is not under any illusions that their method of business is the easiest. It isn’t. It can apparently be brutal. But they (and I must admit — I) believe it to be an important and necessary process. It is a way to make sure that all views and angles are respected and given space. Instead of limiting change and creativity, it seems to foster it by offering voice to all rather than simply encouraging group think.
I should add that consensus does not mean that everyone agrees. Pastor Samuel Voth Schrag explained to me that people are always on a continuum. You have those who are very excited about an idea and want to participate. You have those who like an idea but probably won’t participate. You have those who are indifferent to an idea. You have those who aren’t particularly fond of an idea, but are okay with the church going forward with it. And you have those who don’t like an idea and will either feel out of fellowship or will actually leave the fellowship if it goes forward. Consensus works to identify those on the extremes. Every idea needs dedicated supporters who will make it work. If everyone likes an idea, but no one is dedicated enough to support it, it won’t go anywhere. And if folks are going to be isolated by a church decision, some work needs to take place.
I was excited to talk to my buddy Wallace Smith and learn that his Baptist church, Journey Community Church, in Shawnee, KS, practices consensus. I love that Baptists are joining in this rich tradition. I hope to learn and understand more as the summer progresses.