I am currently working on trying to model the decision-making of church leaders when making decisions to change (or keep) church doctrine in response to changing public opinion. As part of that, I am trying to think of every significant factor that a church leader might take into mind (consciously or unconsciously) when put in such a situation. The list is hard to keep to a manageable length. The good news is that to model is to simplify; not all these factors can be taken into account, but that is also the bad news. All social science is reductive to a degree because human beings and the societies we create are so complex. It is more daunting than charting the reaction of two chemicals, for example, whose behaviour is more predictable. I think this list I have created (below) will give some context to that statement. I see a few rough areas of decision making for church leaders: branding, doctrinal, opinion-gauging, growth concerns, leadership structure, spirituality, and personality.
Branding and Identity
What is the “brand” or identity of the church?
Is there a desire from leadership to better define the “content” of the identity; what it means? Or what the brand means?
- Will the decision help achieve that?
Is the brand of the church being a “peculiar people” or very distinct? I.e. is the identity of the church to be the small leven that raises the whole loaf, the city on the hill, the light of the world? In which case standing distinct is part of the brand.
Will the decision negatively affect the brand in that it will make it a less desirable brand to most people? I.e. is there a desire for the church to be liked and well-thought of?
How important is the doctrine in question?
How important is it to leadership?
How important do the leaders think it is to the identity or brand of the church?
How important do they think the membership feels it is?
Is the doctrine already in force and how difficult would that be to change?
Who does the doctrine/issue affect? What types of members does it effect? How many such members are there?
Do leadership think the issue falls under their spiritual jurisdiction? Or is this a “render unto Ceaser” moment or a personal choice moment?
Is there scriptural precedent?
- Is there precedent from previous church leaders?
How difficult is it to explain the theology or doctrine to lay members?
How clear or ambiguous is the issue or doctrine?
- Is there room for multiple interpretations?
Are there existing and compelling frames in which to situate a decision?
Is there a way or means to communicate the doctrine easily? In what form?
Would adoption of a certain stance be easy to implement or would it be difficult or costly? And what exactly are the anticipated costs of rejection?
How far away is the ideal point of the church from the ideal point of society?
- Could adaptation now help avoid having to adopt an even worse outcome later on?
Where did this issue come from? Who generated it? Was it from within leadership? Within the church? Or from critics of the church?
What is the current context or environment surrounding the issue at hand?
What is the spectrum of opinion that currently exists within and without the church?
- Is it concentrated or dispersed?
How overwhelming is public opinion?
Who is the audience for any proposed change in doctrine or practice? The outside world? The church membership? A particular subset of membership?
What do they expect the reaction will be from inside the church?
Do they desire to placate the main body of membership and satisfy their ideal preference point?
How do they think the decision will impact the welfare of the members? As in, will it be overly burdensome on the members of the church to have to deal with any fallout over the decision?
Is this a chance to move the body of the church closer to leadership’s ideal preference point.
What is the current distribution of preferences that exist in the church?
What do church leaders at the local level think? Will they follow you?
What do the youth of the church think? Will this alienate them?
What is the demographic makeup of the church?
- How homogeneous is the membership?
Do leadership think membership will follow them? How easily? How obedient or fractious are “the flock” in general?
How generally known is your current stance as a church? Perhaps there is a chance to fly under the radar and avoid serious criticism.
- How locked in are critics and watchdogs on your behaviour as a church?
What do they expect the reaction will be from outside the church?
Is there a chance to significantly move outside opinion by taking a certain stance? This could be within or without the church.
What is the media environment?
What do the media think of the issue?
What will media reaction be to any decision?
Will a decision or stance open or close doors to other social, civil, or religious organizations? How will allies react?
What do they expect reaction will be from the state?
What are the legal ramifications and existing laws?
Will their decision annoy the state/government or its leaders?
What is the desired relationship with the state?
What is the current relationship?
- Does the government ordain clergy in that place? Monitor them? Fund them?
Will their be financial ramifications for adoption/non-adoption of some issues?
From the state?
From the members?
What are other churches doing?
- Can there be a united stance taken on an issue to mitigate negative exposure.
Is the “writing already on the wall” when it comes to the long-term viability of the issue at hand? I.e. is it a lost cause?
- How confident are leadership in forecasting how society will change in future in regard to the issue/doctrine?
What are the “timing” considerations?
Is there a chance of being a trendsetter?
Is there a risk of being too late?
Will big changes have to wait for large conferences, or can they be “swept under the rug” by other events?
Also, is there a chance the issue will go away on its own?
- Is it deemed to be a passing trend?
How will the decision affect church growth?
What will the cost/benefit ratio be of incoming members versus members leaving as a result of a decision or stance taken?
Could making a decision attract new members from other churches?
Is a smaller but more committed membership desired? Or what is the growth level that is actually desired? How do leaders imagine the church being in a century?
Could a decision increase exposure and publicity (as in all press is good press; being relevant is the goal)?
Is there a desire to encourage growth among a certain type of membership and inhibit growth in another type of membership? “Sorting the sheep from the goats”.
- Is there a desire to punish or warn certain segments of the church and reward others?
Will negative press about the issue be too negative to general goodwill the church might receive, thus posing too risky a problem to growth?
- Will it affect the long-term viability or stability of the church? In future generations?
What is the perfect amount of distinction from the world and other churches desired? Does adaptation help with that distinction?
What are the demographic considerations in regard to growth? Will a decision on the issue at hand promote growth or satisfy membership in the parts of the world where leaders see the future of the church heading?
- Will membership in these international locations accept the decision. I.e. is there a decision that could largely satisfy membership around the world?
What is the leadership structure of the church?
Is it unitary or diffuse?
- Is it congregationalist–churches that are run as individual congregations rather than as a hierarchy?
Is majority, plurality, or absolute consensus required in leadership?
How easy is it to align all of leadership in the same direction on an issue?
How easy is it for leadership to meet together in the first place?
Does it require difficult collective action?
What is the membership structure?
What are the norms of church leadership involvement in politics? Are they comfortable wading into the fray? Are their members comfortable with them in that role?
- Are religious leaders allowed to become involved in politics? (In some countries they are not).
Morality and Spirituality
What does their internal moral compass say about the issue?
What do they believe God (or whatever divine being they believe in) has revealed to them on the subject, if anything?
- What answers have they received via prayer, if any?
Is there a “slippery slope” moral aspect to the doctrine/decision? I.e. making a stand now will prevent worse outcomes in the future.
Will the decision help speed the advent of a foretold apocalypse?
- Is that desired?
Is the value in question tied to fundamental liberal western norms (like freedom and individuality)?
What impact will this have on their legacy as a leader?
- What will the reaction be from the social networks of the leaders? I.e. their friends and family.
Will adaptation/non-adaptation threaten their status as leaders in the eyes of the general church? I.e. will their purported divine authority be undermined.
How much do the individual leaders care about the issue at hand?
Consider the demographic makeup of leaders:
How old are they?
Where are they from?
What are their current views and how strongly do they feel about them?
How risk averse are they?
What are their social identities?
Does the leader have the following personality factors:
A desire for approval/to be liked
A desire to mitigate criticism
A desire to seek harmony and consensus
A desire to defy critics
A desire to prove themselves
A desire to be respected (seen as inspired)
A desire to be agreeable
Openness to new experiences
Self-confidence versus insecurity
Is the leader an effective public speaker? Could they effectively communicate their decision?