Lysbeth Borie of the Alpha Institute has been involved in consensus decision making for over thirty years, including 10 years of daily practice at the Alpha Farm community in Deadwood, Oregon, and has worked as a consensus trainer, both privately and in partnership with her mentor Caroline Estes, since 1988. In our conversation, among other aspects of consensus process, Lysbeth and I explore how consensus process done well enriches the culture of communities, fostering growth, intimacy, and clarity of discernment; how it functions best when approached as a personal and collective transformational practice; the elements that go into healthy consensus process; and the role of consensus in the organic stages of group development.
While this is one of my longer interviews, I believe it’s well worth your time if this topic holds interest for you. What I most appreciate about Lysbeth’s reflections is the sense of consensus process as able to integrate the material, personal, social, and spiritual concerns of a community and use them as the raw material for mutual growth on all of these levels. This raises further questions that might be worth exploring more in depth at a later time. For instance, underlying this process is a worldview relying on a systems or ecological perspective that emphasizes the interrelationship and interdependence of those within the system, as opposed to a hierarchical worldview that implies the necessity for a clear chain of command. This contrast in worldviews in turn affects how we conceive of God and God’s action in the world, determines the forms of institutions that we develop, and the pattern of relations with one another and the planet.
Interestingly, the Rule of Benedict, while tending strongly toward the hierarchical (with the embodiment of Christ’s authority centralized in the person of the abbot), does not neglect the horizontal, or “that of God in all people.” For instance, as outlined in the third chapter of the Rule, the abbot should consult the whole of the community before making important decisions because “the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.” While the brothers in this instance play only a consultative role, there is nonetheless an acknowledgement that no one person, not even the abbot, can presume to have access to the whole truth but must patiently listen for God potentially speaking through each and all.
For me, this raises the further question of whether consensus process can adequately account for differences in levels of maturity and the appropriation of the ‘charism’ or calling of a community. Especially in a monastery or neo-monastic community, where the intent is to form its members according to the wisdom of a centuries-old tradition, there would seem to be a need to integrate both hierarchical and egalitarian approaches, though this ought to look different in our day than it did in Benedict’s sixth century context.
Much food for thought.
Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise