Making Wise Decisions

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

Three principles to make wise decisions

Making wise decisions is critical. It is unfortunate then, that churches spend so little time thinking about the process they use to make decisions.  Many churches have poor procedures and organizations, which result in making some poor decisions.  They are simply not set up to make wise decisions.

Here are three principles that can guide your church to make wise decisions.

1. Empower your people:

Make most decisions at the work area level.

Give authority for decision making to those who are doing the work.  Many churches hold their ministry work level committees in limbo until some higher level of authority gives permission to act; sometimes this can take weeks.  Larger churches may have two or three layers of approval before a committee can act; this can take months.  Imagine how this actually discourages creativity, encourages frustration, lengthens meetings, and slows down the ability to move in new directions quickly.

Send a message to every work area in the whole organization: “This is your mission area – stay within it.  This is your budget – stay within it. With those two boundaries firmly in mind, you are free to carry out your mission and spend your budget without further approval from anyone else.  Be creative!  Be missional!  Accomplish great things!  No group will tell you “No!”  You have complete authority and pre-approval to do whatever you wish to do — within budget, and within your area of responsibility.”

It takes a bit of trust to do this.  But consider what a lack of trust it is to operate otherwise.  The people we ask to serve on committees are not children; they are committed, compassionate, creative leaders whom we asked to serve because we trust their wisdom, judgment and expertise.  Trust them completely and your church will be rewarded.  You will discover that the church committee that has full authority to act will be reluctant at first. However, the committee will eventually learn to do more and be more creative with the ministry they lead.  The whole organization will improve and your meetings will get shorter.

(Note: See the Background Story about W. Edward Deming at the end of the article.)

2.  Ensure Quality Control:

Evaluate what just happened before you plan for the next time.

This is a key ingredient that most churches sadly ignore.  So often we just keep doing what we’ve always done.  Sometimes it is wise to do this, if it still has meaning, and if there is a growing group of people who attend the events.  But often we find churches doing the same things year after year just because it’s tradition, with little thought as to how well the event is being received by the congregation and community.

Every event should be evaluated for effectiveness immediately after the event or the season.

  • Was the event well-received?
  • Did it accomplish its purpose?
  • Was it meaningful to all who attended?
  • Did the number of people in attendance increase?
  • What mistakes did we make that we want to avoid making next year?
  • What went well that we could do better?

Only when we are sure it will be worthwhile to hold the event again, as well as exactly what changes should be made, should we put it on the calendar for the next year.  (See related article: Creating a 12 Month Plan)

When we do this, we learn not only how to plan and carry out that event, but we also learn new ways to handle other events which are approaching.  We won’t have to wait a full year to reap the benefits of a good evaluation.

Take complete notes at the evaluation and make sure those notes are replicated and given to the people responsible for the program next year.

3. Only take a vote when you are sure of overwhelming (90%+) approval.

This is an essential principle for every organization, but it especially critical for churches.  You may think this is absurd:  How can we know what the vote will be?

Every pastor should know well ahead of time whether you will have a 49%-51% vote or an easy 90% majority.  Simply ask your key leaders how they think the congregation is feeling and they will tell you.

Why is this important?  Let me explain it this way: Suppose there is a very controversial issue which has come before the church — imagine a big capital campaign for a new pipe organ.  Suppose the church is absolutely split on this issue.  Everyone is upset and no one knows how the vote will go.  Everyone wants to put this issue to rest so they rush to take a vote which results in a 49% to 51% split.  What really results from this vote?  49% of the people are very upset and a substantial number may leave the church.  You stand to lose 49% of your congregation.  Not only will you not raise the money for the new pipe organ, but you may be hard pressed to finish the budget year in the black.  So, you do have a decision and it may even have been the right decision; hence you may win the day.  However, you may have fatally harmed the church.

When the vote is 90% in favor of something, even those who voted against it have to admit there must have been some wisdom in the decision since 90% of the congregation voted in favor of it.  One or two of them may get grumpy and leave the church.  But, since a clear majority has spoken, most of the 10% will be all right with the decision eventually.  They may not support the project financially, but they probably won’t leave the church, or cut their pledge.

When decisions will be harmful to the church, find ways not to make them.  Often we can put off a vote while we slowly build a consensus.  We collect data, pursue more information, hold a few more meetings, etc.  We listen to the complaints of the opposition and address them as much as possible.  All the while seeking to build an overwhelming consensus.  Pastors have amazing authority to put things off for awhile.  Sometimes people just need to adjust to an idea until it seems like a good thing.  Over time, you will probably get that overwhelming majority you need to move forward.

Also, by putting things off and waiting for some clarity, you may find that your pet project is going to go down in flames.  Then simply slide away from it and go on with something else.  Never ever take a vote that you will lose:  Why bother since nothing good will come of that.  Don’t take a vote that will split the congregation or defeat your key leaders.

We all have to make decisions.  Learn to make wise decisions, and make them with a well-crafted process: Empower your people, ensure quality control, and build a big consensus and you will make wise decisions.

Copyright 2016 by Steve Petty


Background Story:  W. Edward Deming – Father of the Japanese Auto Rebirth

At the end of World War II the United States and our allies had successfully defeated the mighty industrial machines that were Germany and Japan.  Their factories lay in ruins, completely destroyed by the saturation bombing in the last year of the conflict.  Our American factories had been converted to wartime use and stood complete and ready to make new goods for a peacetime economy.

Buildings that used to roll out tanks by the thousands were now converted back to rolling out sedans and station-wagons with ever-growing V8 engines fueled by cheap American oil and gas.  We were on top of the world.  We knew how to do things.  We were the winners and we intended to stay on top.

Japan and Germany had to rebuild, retool, reinvent, and rethink how to build everything.  For a while anything “Made in Japan” was seen as a cheap imitation of an American product. (Indeed, the Toyota six cylinder engine that powered the fabled Land Cruiser was almost a complete copy of a Chevrolet Blue Flame Six.)

But Japan did something almost by accident:  They asked an American engineer W. Edward Deming to come talk to them.  They thought he would tell them how to build things as America built them.  But Deming did more:  In August of 1950 Deming spoke to some of Japan’s industrial leaders, and his presentation shaped Japanese production to this day.  He shared with them what American companies needed to do to improve their products.  The Japanese companies listened; the American companies did not.

Deming emphasized two major things, both of which would make the consumers happier:  Design for serviceability, build for quality.  To do this he encouraged them to change the way decisions were made, reversing the traditional pyramid process.

To ensure better service and quality, they gave more authority to the workers on the assembly line.  If something was going wrong, any worker could stop the assembly to make sure that the problem was corrected.  Further, if any worker saw a way to do things better, he or she was encouraged to make the changes.  Engineers were learning from the assembly workers; designs improved dramatically, resulting in vastly improved quality.

American workers were paid by the hour and didn’t really care about the quality of the products they were making.  Engineers who didn’t work on the assembly lines made decisions about how things were built.  Workers who questioned the process were fired, so they learned to shut up.  Just twenty years later American cars of the 1970s were falling apart as they were built.  Japanese cars were running and running and running.  By the 1980s Toyota was the most reliable car brand in the world, and it still is to this day.

What can the church learn from Deming?