Thursday, December 20, 2007

Beware the Democratic Process

Let's vote on it.

How many times have you heard that old familiar suggestion? A decision needs to to be made, clearly there are conflicting opinions among members, no one position is in firm agreement with all parties, and so someone suggests taking a vote.

Sound reasonable enough, doesn't it? Seems in keeping with egalitarian, democratic principles, namely the one that states every member of a free society ought to have an equal say in dictating policy. How would decision-making be totally fair otherwise?

I remember a year ago the church I attended at the time brought in a consultant to aid us in the transition process. Bitter feelings all around had characterized the departure of the previous minister, and so the consultant, armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a wealth of experience in speaking to a variety of different denominations methodically trotted out his recommendations. One of the bullet points of the talk he gave struck me upon first glance as deeply insulting. It instantly connoted some kind of statement restricting individual liberty.

Beware the Democratic Process.

Upon further contemplating, however, I understand the point he was trying to make. The Democratic process has a way complicating matters. In catering to individual demands out of a spirit of being accommodating and open minded, what often occurs instead is that unnecessary layers of complication are added. Routine, simple matters of policy which could be quickly dealt with become strung out, protracted affairs. Voting can often politicize membership to its detriment, creating opposing factions. An entitlement mentality can often result as well, by which a few people with private agendas insist that all of the desires must be incorporated. This often creates resentment and bad tidings.

In response to this, I have always favored keeping individual gatherings small whenever possible. With every additional person added to the mix, so too arrives unique concerns and complications. If most church members know each other, they bring a vested interest and mutual understanding of individual desires that is often not present in larger gathering just as a matter of course. Sometimes restraining growth simply isn't feasible and sometimes growth occurs of its own accord.

When we derisively decry churches who actively resist growth, the implication in the criticism is often that they don't wish to add additional members because the often self-proclaimed leaders do not wish to entertain anything resembling challenges to their authority or to have their methods actively questioned. Criticisms like these, sadly, do often have validity. Let me say that it doesn't have to be this way, either. This is the other extreme, the totalitarian, autocratic approach. Inevitably, in circumstances like these power is wholly equated with seniority, as though somehow length of membership trumps any other factor in determining who gets final say.

The Quaker Way of dealing with situations like these is rather novel.

Questions are not decided by majority rule. The presiding clerk tries to be sensitive to the meeting's search for truth and unity. Strongly opposed views are often reconciled through suggestion of a Third Way; or decision is held over to a later meeting, awaiting further insight, information, understanding. No vote is taken. Unity, although, not unanimity is the intended goal.

Perhaps a better way to define the crux of my argument is to say, rather, use the democratic process sparingly and only for matters which simply cannot be resolved in any other fashion.

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