Steeping Your Decisions Like a Proper Tea

Group based decision making is agonizing for many of us. We toss issues around and around without real progress, we postpone taking action, and we get sidetracked by personal agendas. Decision making needs more structure and guidance than most of us are providing. Decisions need to be steeped, like a proper tea.

It’s all About the Process

My husband’s British grandmother often laments the improper way that Americans prepare tea. We stick a cup of water into the microwave for ninety seconds, plop in a tea bag, wait a minute and drink. The result is a tepid drink.

The proper way to prepare tea is to bring a kettle of water to a full boil, preheat a separate steeping pot, pour the boiling water over the tea bag in the steeping pot, and let the tea steep for a full three to five minutes before serving.  The extra time and steps reap the reward of noticeably fuller flavor.

So it is with decision making. We ultimately get more effective results when we steep the decision. The process at first appears cumbersome. However, over time we actually speed up decision making by gaining clarity and intentionality. The quality of our decisions and our discernment improve when we master seven basic steps.

Framing the Issue: The way we frame a problem or issue makes all of the difference in the quality of our decision making.

Suppose the leaders at First Presbyterian Church are concerned about a decline in weekend worship attendance. Every month this topic is listed on their meeting agenda as “worship attendance”. Every month leaders spend fifteen to twenty minutes worrying about the decline in attendance, without ever deciding whether there is a problem with worship, what the nature of the problem might be, and what action might be called for.  Random worrying about an issue is not part of good decision making.

What conversations do the leaders at First Presbyterian want to have? Should they focus on the larger trend of decline that all churches are experiencing? Should they explore the repercussions of attendance shrinkage on their programs and budget? Should they brainstorm possible ways to increase attendance, or explore other worship venues?  A failure to frame is a failure to focus.

Grounding the Decision: Once your leadership team is clear about the framing statement, endeavor as a group to name the principles and values that will ground and guide this particular decision.

For example: As we consider our future worship options we will be guided by our commitment to radical inclusivity in worship, we will honor our Reformed worship tradition, and pursue excellence in music. We will be open to alternative musical styles and levels of formality. We will embrace advances in technology and will be mindful of demands on our building and our parking capacity.  We will protect a uniform Sunday school hour.

Shedding Bias and Ego: The third step in the decision making process examines and sheds unhelpful biases and ego investments in particular outcomes. This needs to happen first as a decision making group, and then individually by members of the group on their own.

For example, we acknowledge that we enjoy our reputation as the largest congregation in the region. Our pride and investment in our size may prevent us from taking a risk on this issue. An individual on the team acknowledges his personal relationship with the Music Minister, which makes him apprehensive about doing anything to diminish the power and importance of the Music Minister role.

Once personal biases and ego investments are acknowledged, we can be freed from those trappings through prayer, particularly when they do not serve the best interest of our mission.

Listening for the Promptings of Spirit: At this point in the process it is usually good for the group to adjourn and for members of the team to spend time in solitude and prayer. The length of time will depend upon the complexity of the decision.

Don’t simply assume that your leaders know how to listen for the prompting of the Spirit as they pray. Coach them in their prayer practice. Consider the Ignatian practice of attending to consolation and desolation.

Invite your leaders to sit quietly before God. Hold each possible decision option in mind, and pay attention to the leaning of spirit toward God (consolation) or away from God (desolation).

With each possible decision option notice where you encounter the movements of consolation (being directed beyond ourselves, being drawn into community, feeling inspiration, feeling restored, balanced, refreshed, led, energized). Also notice the movements of desolation (turning in towards self, drawn to negative feelings, cut off from community, giving up on important values, drained of energy).

Weighing the Options: After an appropriate time for individual prayer and reflection, regather the group for decision making. Invite groups members to share the insights gained during their personal time of solitude and prayer. Ask the group to weigh the options that still feel viable. Discuss the pros and cons of each of those choices without debate.

Closing:  When the group seems ready, call for consensus or vote. Consensus is not the same thing as unanimity. You are not trying to get everyone to agree on their first choice of options. You are trying to discern if there is a particular option emerging that everyone can support as a viable option moving forward.

Testing: Having named your outcome, adjourn. Before you announce your decision to anyone outside of the group, let the decision rest in prayer. Regather and check in with one another to make certain that you are still at consensus. Address any further issues or reservations that may have emerged. Prepare yourselves to announce the decision.

Not all decisions are significant enough to warrant this careful form of deliberation. However, when the issue is important, particularly challenging, or requires significant buy-in, these seven steps invite effectiveness. Being more deliberate about process saves time in the long run by eliminating side tracks and second guessing.  It is well worth the time that it takes to steep.