Of Process (not Theology) and Results

by Henry E. Neufeld

FactsOver the last few weeks U. S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has complained a great deal how the rules of the Republican Party are unfair and he is thereby being denied delegates that are rightfully his. Despite the evidence that the rules may actually be helping him, many voters are convinced that Donald Trump is being cheated. They vote for him. He doesn’t get delegates. The system is somehow rotten.
At the same time United Methodists prepare to gather for their general conference. The United Methodist Church has a relatively complex polity with delegates selected by churches to annual conferences and then by annual conferences to general conference. Sometimes the people in local churches feel that they are not represented, even though this process started at the local church, where members have many opportunities to participate and influence policy. Our church, they will say, has become quite distant from us, the church members.
These two situations have at least one thing in common: People who participate in a process believe the process is in some way unfair because the results of the process are not what they desire..[ene_ptp] One solution we might consider is explaining the process to the people. If we try to do that, we’ll likely find that people have very little patience for an explanation of the process. If it gets complex, people begin to think it’s a conspiracy against them. Unless, of course, it is producing the results they want to see
I recall once trying to explain to a group of people what they would need to do to change the direction of their local United Methodist Church. I’m not expert on the United Methodist Discipline, but I do know the basic outlines. Changing the policy of a church involves changing the people on committees, and much of that occurs over the course of at least three years. One needs to attend Charge Conference to be involved in electing the nominating committee. One needs to attend all the committee meetings. Yet even if one does this, the church will not turn on a dime. It’s more like steering a large ship than a car, and some would say it’s more like trying to steer a train. The tracks get in the way. The folks I was talking to basically gave up. If a year wouldn’t do it, they weren’t willing to make a move.
The process of changing the process is even harder, because one needs to convince more people over more territory and over more time. To the shock of many, something that seems obvious in your local church may not seem nearly so obvious to someone in a church across the world—or even across the county! So more people have to be convinced of something that is more complex and will have uncertain results.
Let’s consider another political issue: Filibusters in the United States Senate. Filibusters were, at one time, carried out most often by one senator who started to speak and refused to yield the floor. As long as he could stand there and talk without leaving for any reason, he could hold up everything. These days action is often blocked for anything that cannot muster 60 votes out of the hundred member body.
This is a process issue. Is it a good idea to require 60 votes minimum to bring legislative actions to a conclusion? And here we have an example of how results tend to overcome process. When Democrats have been in the majority in the Senate, they have commonly opposed filibusters, and the Republicans tend to support them. When the situation is reversed, so are the positions on filibusters.
Many people are simply impatient with a process, particularly a complex one that they don’t understand, and consider the results only. A good process is one that produces a good result, whatever I may think that is. Trump voters don’t like the Republican delegate rules and Cruz voters do for the simple reason that Senator Cruz’s campaign operation is getting a better result out of the rules.
For a similar reason many people have little patience with the process of a trial. They decide based one whatever news they may have heard whether a person is guilty or innocent. A person commonly perceived as guilty “got off” if the jury finds them not guilty. They were railroaded if the jury finds them guilty against the assumptions of the crowd.
But just like all the process for electing delegates to the Republican Convention or the United Methodist General Conference, or the process for considering legislation in the United States Senate, the process for carrying out a trial was created for the purpose of allowing real people to conduct business and give many participants an opportunity to have their say. Even the much-maligned filibuster is a way for a minority to prevent the majority from absolute power. All of those processes are important.
I don’t mean that all of them are perfect, or even very good. They may even be unfair. They may be excessively complex. But general they have become that way as people adapt the process to the people it needs to serve. This can result in some very odd procedures that may seem completely without reason or merit. A process that has been adapted over and over, such as the combination of rules that result in courtroom procedure, may seem grotesquely complex. And indeed it may well need reform. But we do well both to remember that it grew up in response to needs, and that it would be a good idea to understand it before we tear it down.
Now I’m not defending the particular processes I’ve discussed. They may all need reform. In fact, for every process I’ve mentioned, I can think of things that, in my opinion, would improve the process considerably. But having a set of rules and a process is critical to making decisions that will stand up over time.
It is possible to like a process and dislike the result of the process. Or, the reverse, one can like the result, but dislike the process. Similarly, in our individual thinking we have a process of logic. We might not spend a great deal of time thinking about it, but we’re going to come to a conclusion somehow. If we do so with little thought, we may be headed for problems, even if we like our current conclusion.
I encounter this in discussing biblical interpretation. “Just tell me what it means,” someone will say. I don’t think it’s very important for someone else to know what I think a passage means. What is important is to learn how to think about what it means. But often people have little patience for thinking about how a conclusion is reached.
I often hear sermons in which the preacher invokes biblical languages. It’s particularly annoying to me when I hear someone make a good point and then try to back it up with a faulty understanding of the source language and even how language works. Some preachers have put me on the spot, realizing I read Greek and Hebrew. They try to get me to give the “Amen” to their comment. I try to dodge! In one church, after I successfully avoided commenting on the pastor’s sermon, he caught me during the Sunday School hour while I was giving a missions presentation and asked me outright. He made a good point, but when he invoked the language—discussed the process—he was in error. He didn’t leave me any option but to say so!
That could be important. If the process is faulty, we can’t rely on coming to reasonable conclusions if we use the same process. We may need to align our compass, change our course, mend the sails, maybe even replace the rudder.
You may be impatient about process. You may feel that the complexity is a conspiracy against you. But this is a case in which following your feelings could definitely do you harm.
Take the time, have the patience, to consider how things have come to be, not just what has come to be.
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