Every voice is valued
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.1 Corinthians 11:33-24
In these words, Paul instructs the Corinthians—that raggle taggle group of disordered participants in an unruly worship gathering—to wait for one another, to ensure that they are all on the same page, to be committed to constructive group gatherings. Every member is important. Every voice is valued. Every need must be understood and responded to.
In the Uniting Church, we have adopted a process known as the consensus model. In that model, according to the Manual for Meetings, we value:
- Listening skills: help us understand what another person is saying and develop new ways of responding.
- Conflict-resolution skills: enable us to deal with the emotional turbulence that typically accompanies conflict … these skills are likely to foster closer relationships.
- Collaborative problem-solving skills: help to resolve conflicting needs in such a way that all parties are satisfied.
(Manual for Meetings 1.6)
In the overview guidelines provided to people who chair meetings of the councils of our church (Appendix B), the guidance is clear: “Treat everyone’s contribution as valuable, and be expectant that the Spirit is guiding the Church”.
I have heard many complaints about the consensus model, which although we have used it for some decades now, is still seen in a negative light by some people. Elizabeth and I have spent much time talking about such complaints over the years, exploring why that may be so.
One of the factors that plays a role in feeding these complaints, we believe, is gender. Have we paused to reflect on the role that our gender plays in our meetings process? What unspoken, unexplored assumptions might we have, about the place we have, as a female, or as a male, in the dynamics of a meeting? What expectations do we have about how we contribute to those meetings in which we participate?
A recent study that Elizabeth found online has some potent messages for us.
The study analysed “the female experience in a top-10, predominately male collegiate accounting program—a program where the women, overall, matriculated with higher Grade Point Averages and more leadership experience than their male peers. The students move through the program on teams, and administrators wanted to know how best to build them.”
The students were put into mixed gender groups. Some had equal numbers of men and women. Some had only one woman. Some had only one man. The researchers observed the dynamics in each of the groups. They found clear problems:
1. Unequal talking time. At best, outnumbered women in the study spoke three-quarters of the time a man spoke; on average, women spoke just two-thirds as much as a man.
2. Routine interruptions. Put a woman alone with four men, and 70 percent of the interruptions she receives from men are negative. Compare that with having four women in the room: here, just 20 percent of the interruptions women receive from men are negative.
3. Limited influence. The same conditions that create disproportionate silence by women also create disproportionate authority by men.
They then explored what took place when groups employed a consensus model that worked to build unanimous support of all participants for any decision made. They determined that this meant:
- Female talking time increased for women in the minority—a lone woman participated nearly as much as a man.
- Positive interruptions—interjections that affirm and validate, like “Yeah” and “I agree”—were significantly increased. Such positive interruptions tripled for women in the minority. If the group sends signals that build confidence, women tend to participate more.
- The influence gap narrowed for a lone woman—she had almost as much of a shot as a man at being voted the most influential member by her group.
How do we hear these results? How do they inform our practices? What must we commit to doing as a result of exploring this research?
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.1 Corinthians 14:26
Building up the body is the bottom line in what Paul instructs those raggle taggle Corinthians. Valuing what each individual contributes to the whole is important. Ensuring that we function as a cohesive groupis the clear focus—whether that be as Church Council, as Elders, as Pastoral Relations Committee, as Standing Committee, as Presbytery-in-Council, or as a Congregational meeting.
The bottom line that the study proposes, is that men need to listen more, women need to speak more, men need to practice positive support for women’s voices, groups need to work hard to operate by consensus, participants need to avoid stereotyping (“you’re a woman, what do you know about this?”), and group leaders need to focus on positive participation processes.
This is what it takes to develop a constructive, cohesive, respectful environment for decision-making.
May we work to ensure processes that honours the voice of every participant, that respects female contribution and participation, and that develops consensus outcomes.
[Of course, the irony is that as I have juxtaposed this study on the importance of women’s voices with words from the latter part of 1 Corinthians, which is precisely where the text informs us that women are to “keep silent in church” (1 Cor 14:34-35). We always need to bring a critical perspective into that we approach texts in scripture. We always need to deconstruct the ideology and discover the fundamental values at work. As in scripture interpretation, so also in meeting dynamics.]
As we meet
Help us to listen with care and patience
Help me to remain quiet and attentive
Help us to speak in appropriate and helpful ways
Help me not to interrupt, but to wait
Help us not to feel intimidated, but rather valued
Help me to focus on discerning a common mind
Help us to participate in positive ways
Help us to be your people, O God.
John Squires is the Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing) for Canberra Region Presbytery. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Informed Faith.