Striving for consensus in community makes for tedious discussions and inefficient processes. Consensus seems like the worst way for communities to make decisions on issues--except when you consider the alternatives!
A case study serves to highlight this paradox and the ultimate wisdom of a consensus model for any community that trusts its members and respects each person's convictions. We heard recently of a Christian community that faced a decision about financial support for a friend in a conflictive area of Central America. While there was no problem with the proposal itself, division arose in the community over the friend's possible connections with guerrilla factions in Central America.
One side felt that community support for this person would signify lending assistance to parties involved in violence. The others in the group believed the community had no right to dictate the terms of its help to someone whose integrity was respected by all. Thus a dilemma and lack of consensus.
Worse yet, each side in the dilemma initially held their positions as matters of principle--nonviolence on the one hand and respect for the friend's conscience on the other. At that moment the community's decision-making ability came to a standstill, paralyzed by essential and seemingly insurmountable differences.
What the community had going for it was a history of respect among its members and the belief that however bleak the prospect for consensus, it could be achieved. For weeks, we were told, this issue of assisting the friend in Central America dominated the community's Wednesday evening meeting. Discussions ranged over theoretical and practical questions of nonviolence (which everyone in the community espoused), moral questions around complicity with groups and persons who opt for armed struggle, the many degrees of such complicity, and of course respect for the conscience of the friend in question.