Silence does NOT give consent.

Silence in a meeting does not mean that everyone is on board. Here are seven traps that silence conceals.

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I’ve seen a pastor chair a meeting of his elders where it seems to go creamily smooth – everything agreed, approved and passed unanimously. You’d think it had gone well.

Six months later, and the equivalent meetings were a mass of angry speeches (including the pastor), and an absolute meltdown of an annual meeting of church members.  The pastor was furious with his elders and the members, everyone else was livid with him, the staff were running for cover in case anyone asked them what they thought, and the pastors wife was in tears, and insisting that they move church.

And all because the pastor thought ‘silence gives consent.’  It doesn’t, and if you’re in a leadership role you need to learn that fast.  Encourage discussion, change the plan – lose a few battles graciously – but never, ever interpret silence in a leadership meeting as giving consent.

Here are seven traps that silence conceals.

You’ve flown solo 

If the idea you’re presenting has no-one else to advocate it, then all the thinking has been done in your head. You believe that you’ve asked all the questions and found all the answers, you can refute all the objections, and have thought through all the alternatives and found them worse than the plan.

The trouble is, even if you’re right, everyone else who is now following you down the same path, is asking the same questions, seeing all the objections, and considering the alternatives.

If you’d done more of your thinking in public, earlier, you could have saved time.  The wisdom of crowds mean that along the way there’s more chance of finding the most pertinent questions and the best possible answers.  And when three or four speak to the same issue, with different backgrounds but liking the same plan, the whole thing looks more plausible.

There’s a rush

Flying solo and then presenting the meeting with a final plan (the only possible plan), for the first time, rings alarm bells for people . In that context, hurrying people along and telling that there’s no real problem only raises their suspicion that you have missed something or (worse) are  hiding something.

Going people time to process always helps.  I have a rule that we don’t discuss a new idea and decide on it at the same church council, because if it’s a big enough issue to come onto that agenda, most people will need time to think what they think.

They’re disengaged 

They’ll let you do it, but all they’re going to do is watch. You’ll do all the work on this.  They’re not necessarily going to be critical or block you, and they may have the grace to congratulate you if it goes well, but don’t expect them to do anything positive.

They’ll echo every parent whose child wants a pet rabbit: ‘OK, but you know you’re going to have to clean it out…’

You have a habit that needs to be broken

Any suspicion increases over time, and with experience. I remember once trying to persuade a church council of the value of having a ministry apprentice (an intern): this was a long time ago, and before such ideas were common practice in churches.  It was impossible to win them over, even though we were all friends.  I had bounced them into something once too often, and they resisted.

There’s something else people need to talk about 

After a while, the habit leads to rising resentment, and that will need to be talked through.  But on a senior level in a church, if the pastor is completely controlling the agenda there will be a rising pressure to discuss the stuff that never comes to the meeting.

And then you discover that there are side meetings, or small email groups, and you’ve created cliques, pressure and gossip circles.  You’ll be interpreted and misinterpreted, quoted and misquoted.

They know they’ll be squashed if they disagree 

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Pastors tend to be good with words – fast, and well-crafted.  We can put people down easily.  We can be just plain nasty (remember James 5 on the tongue is addressed to teachers, that is, preachers).

If people know that they’ll be dismissed, squashed, belittled, patronised, or any one of a number of other ways of saying ‘bullied’, they will stay silent.  In the meeting, anyway, and while you’re in the room.  But be sure they will talk elsewhere – and they’ll do it a lot.

The person in the chair is over-controlling and defensive 

And this ultimately was where the problem lay in the room with that first pastor. He was simultaneously controlling and defensive. He wanted his way (and only his way), but he also wanted to be thought to be popular and liked. He wanted to be right, to public acclaim. Put those together, and it meant he had a terribly thin skin, which meant he interpreted disagreement as disloyalty, and disloyalty as a spiritual attack.

Pastors – disagreement is not evidence of disloyalty. Learn that lesson early, and often.

What else have you learned that silence conceals?  Pile in!

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