Summary: Breakdowns in a church’s decision-making processes can lead to 3 phenomena that violate the conditions a group needs to be consistently wise. They have to watch out that they’re not sucked into groupthink, herding or information cascades.
I’ve heard of a lot of churches over the years that have started out of homes. As soon as they grow to be too big for meeting in a home, what do they do? Most that I’ve heard of assume it’s now time to purchase a church building.
Now, I’m not going to judge the wisdom of that decision for each individual case as being “right or wrong.” But instead I’ll ask the questions – is that the wisest decision in EVERY case? Did anyone think there were alternative solutions? Did someone give a voice to those solutions?
Without judging each case, I will say this…for most churches, their church building and the associated financial strain is a burden that significantly inhibits their ability to optimally carry out the mission of the church.
Can purchasing a building be a wise decision for a church? Possibly, depending on the circumstances and purpose. But for most, using a large building is just an assumed solution regardless if it’s the wisest decision or not.
I’m part of a church that doesn’t use a church building. Why? We’ve determined we don’t currently need one for any particular reason. When the gatherings in our homes get too big, we simply make it two gatherings instead of one. We’ve decided this form best serves how the church was designed to function. When we want to get everyone together from our multiple gatherings, we rent a space.
I won’t go into all the advantages we experience from not using a building here, but financially it’s freed us up to be able to use more of our resources to directly further the mission of the church. Last year, close to all of the money allocated to our collective fund was put directly toward things necessary for the making of disciples and planting of churches.
For most churches, this is likely the minority of their budget. Most of the money given actually goes toward things that aren’t necessary for fulfilling God’s eternal purpose.
With that said, our church would also need to be open to the possibility that purchasing a building for specific uses might be our wisest choice in the future. Who knows. But ultimately, form should follow function.
The conditions for wisdom get violated
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki points out three phenomena that occur among groups that make decisions together that affect their ability to be consistently wise. The thing is, churches don’t plan on these things occurring. They do so because there’s a breakdown somewhere in their decision-making processes.
The processes used violate the conditions I’ve talked about in a previous post that need to be present for a church to be consistently wise – diversity, independence, and decentralization.
The example above illustrates the first phenomenon – groupthink.
Violating diversity with groupthink
Groupthink tends to occur when the members of a group are too much alike. This violates the condition of diversity.
In a previous post in this series, I mentioned that diversity of opinion in a church is a condition that must be present to make consistently wise decisions. Here’s a little snippet from that post…
This need for diversity is actually WHY decisions shouldn’t be left in the hands of one or a few individuals. Simply coming to an agreement on a decision doesn’t make a group wise. This is because if the group is made up of very similar people with very similar opinions, they will tend to resemble each other in their perspectives, and in turn, the possibilities they’ll be able to come up with.
Basically, the more alike the members of a church are, the more isolated they become from alternative opinions and solutions.
Groupthink is marked by a lack of dissent when making decisions; along with a lack of exploration of possibilities.
You’ll find this a lot in churches that operate by “majority rule.” In this system, anyone that dissents with the majority is rationalized away as mistaken. The majority come away with their beliefs reinforced, convinced more than ever that they’re right because they equate the bigger group with rightness. Those in the minority feel a pressure to conform, so they change their opinion not because it’s what they think, but because it’s easier to do that than challenge the group.
A church’s ability to make consistently wise decisions decreases when they operate like this, or when they use any other process that squashes diversity. If churches would instead embrace diversity, possibilities and dissent; it would make a huge difference in their outcomes.
Violating independence with herding
The second phenomenon occurs when independence is lost because a good amount of people adopt the strategy of simply following the group’s decisions. While groups do make wiser decisions than one or a few individuals (and it would therefore be rational to follow the group), the principle is violated as soon as too many people adopt the strategy.
Why? Because people aren’t actually thinking through possibilities and giving their opinions anymore. Again, a group is only wise if it brings a diversity of possibilities to the table. Therefore, people have to independently consider the possibilities they can come up with themselves to keep a group wise.
Surowiecki provides a classic example of this occurring in football games all the time. For some reason, football coaches traditionally won’t go for first downs on fourth down when the math says they should. Why? Because no one else does. How did it start? Probably no one knows.
Maybe some coach had a really good team and he never went for a first down on fourth down, so everyone just started copying that. This phenomenon is called herding. Everyone’s just doing something because that’s what everyone does.
What happens to the rare coach that comes along and decides to start making different decisions? All the sports talk shows label them a “rebel” and talk for hours about whether they made the right decision when they went for it on fourth down at some point in the game. Of course, if they didn’t make it, most will say it was the wrong decision. If they do, the coach is given a positive label like “gutsy.”
Actually, these fourth-down decisions ARE quantifiable. An economist named David Romer did the math on every scenario and we pretty much know what decision should be made in every situation on the football field given the other factors going on in the game.
While there are some unquantifiable factors that could be affecting a game like momentum, weather, etc.; in general, football coaches make the wrong decision the majority of the time. They consistently make these decisions out of emotion rather than wisdom.
A group has to be careful not to blindly accept decisions made by people just because they respect them, or they have a more outgoing personality, or they are just more intense with their convictions or opinions. Remember, different people will have a tendency to be wiser in different situations than others.
Ignoring each person’s unique information
The last phenomenon we’ll talk about here occurs when decisions are made sequentially by people, instead of all at once. The problem that can occur with making decisions sequentially is people can start to assume those that made decisions ahead of them somehow had better information than they did. This causes people to abandon their unique opinions and possibilities and just settle for what others have already decided.
Surowiecki’s example for this is a scientific experiment involving two urns with marbles in them. Urn A contained twice as many light marbles as dark ones. Urn B contained twice as many dark marbles as light ones. At the beginning, the experimenters chose one of the two urns from which, in sequence, each volunteer drew a marble. The question the participants in the experiment had to answer was: Which urn was being used? A correct answer earned them a couple of dollars.
To answer that question, the participants could rely on two sources of information. First, they had the marble they had drawn from the urn. If they drew a light marble, chances were that it was from Urn A. If they drew a dark marble, chances are that it was from Urn B. This formed their independent perspective because no one was allowed to reveal what color marble they had drawn. All people revealed was their guess as to which urn was being used. This was the second source of information and it created a potential conflict.
If three people in front of you had guessed Urn B, but you drew a light marble, would you still guess Urn A even though the group thought otherwise?
This experiment shows how people tend to be influenced by the decisions made ahead of them and ignore their own information. They feel the pressure of others making a decision that goes against what the information they have is telling them. This is called an information cascade.
Instead, if each volunteer would only have made a decision based on their own information, the group would turn out to be wiser and make the right decision way more often.
Explore and express each person’s opinion
The last two phenomenons break with keeping the condition of independence. But the concept of independence in this context is not what you might be thinking. It doesn’t mean isolation. After all, the mark of healthy church life is interdependence.
But interdependence requires that each person bring their unique contributions to the table to the same level that every other person does. In the way they bring their unique perspective and opinions to the group, they are bringing their independence to contribute to the good of the whole.
In the context of decision-making, it means each person feels the freedom to be introspective and express their opinions, no matter what they may be, without judgment. It’s not that people’s mindsets and thought processes can’t be influenced by those they interact with. The problem occurs when people start deferring to others and accepting their opinions as right by default without truly exploring and expressing what they might think and feel in a matter.
The degree to which each individual person participates in this is the degree to which a church will be wise. Remember, the less people in a church involved in decision-making processes, the dumber the church gets. It doesn’t matter how “expert” the decision-makers are.
This means we have to watch out for situations where a group (most of the time unknowingly) moves away from holding the independence of its group members in the decision-making processes as sacred. The value of each person in a group is just that – sacred.
What all three of these scenarios demonstrate is the importance of each person being first included, but also feeling free and responsible to act independently according to the insights they bring to the table. In all of these scenarios, diversity and independence is lost for different reasons. When this happens, the wisdom a church is able to operate with diminishes.
The rest of the posts in the Consistently Wise series are here.