The Consensus Camel

Sam Rainer

December 13, 2009

Perhaps you’ve heard a version of the saying “a camel is a horse designed by church committee.” The statement is a bit unfair, but also quite humorous. It’s humorous because there’s an element of truth to it. But it’s unfair because any group of people—not just committees—can lose sight of the original goal.

What creates a camel out of a horse? There’s a lurking danger in every team brainstorming session and every committee meeting. It’s consensus. Most probably think of consensus positively—the majority of opinion wins. The problem with consensus is not that the majority rules. Consensus is not always bad. The problem with consensus is how a group of people can get to the point of majority.

How can the process of consensus turn ugly? It’s when no one gets everything they wanted, when everyone gets something they wanted, and when most can live with the outcome. When a group comes to a decision through this process, I call it a “consensus camel.”

What are some ways to avoid consensus camels in the church?

Avoid diversity. In most situations, diversity is the ideal. In all cases, it is good to have ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic diversity. But some groups don’t need to be diverse from the perspective of technical experience. For example, the AV team/committee needs people who understand technology and have eyes and ears for excellence in worship. The discipleship team/committee needs people who understand education resources. The finance team/committee needs people who actually like numbers. I’m sure you get the point. The problems is that it’s entirely too easy to fill an empty spot with someone who is willing to serve. This person, at best, simply occupies the empty seat quietly, and at worst they distract the vision with irrelevant opinions. [The one exception to this rule would be to train someone who is interested in a particular aspect of ministry but has little experience.]

Guide the group. On the front end! As a church leader, don’t be afraid to tell teams and committees exactly what you believe needs to happen. But give them a crystallized vision. Don’t muddy the waters with vague and general concepts—be specific and show the group examples. Most people greatly appreciate clear vision from leaders.

Don’t fear the reset button…on the back end. Stop the group if you see a camel forming. When teams or committees start assembling a camel, it looks like progress. After all, camels and horses can do many of the same things. The problem is that while everyone may be able to live with the camel, it’s not what is truly needed. Consensus can be a dangerous compromise—start over if you need to.

Any additional tips on how to thwart the consensus camel? Any funny stories out there about some misshapen horses?

4 comments on “The Consensus Camel”

  1. Rob Turner says:

    One “Consensus Camel” I have experienced was in a church that had half pews and half seats in the sanctuary. They just couldn’t come to a solid consensus!

  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Rob – Now that’s funny.

  3. hisfool says:

    Wow, what a sight … LOL.

  4. Paul Mayhan says:

    That’s not as bad as the little country church I saw that had green carpet on one side and red on the other.

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