Include and listen to minorities on committees

'Token' members aren't enough

Commentary | Karen Holford

'Token' members aren't enough

As a well-organized global church, Seventh-day Adventists are excellent at constructing committees that develop strategies, solve problems and elect other committees. But what happens when passionate, creative, experienced and knowledgeable committee members feel that their voices don't make a difference, and their votes are a few one in twenty or a hundred? They can soon feel unheard, outnumbered and frustrated.

A woman recently walked out of a building where a major executive committee was meeting. She sat on a bench frustrated and distressed. She had been invited to sit on several committees because of her vast professional experience and took unpaid leave to attend church meetings. She turned to me, saying, "I've sat on these committees for years and I don't think I've ever made a difference. No one's really listened to what I had to say. Not one of the church's policies or decisions has ever been changed because of my suggestions. I feel like a rubber stamp." She walked back inside, excused herself from the meeting and drove away.

For all the right and best reasons we work hard to balance our committees by experience, gender, ethnicity, age, etc. And we feel we've done well to capture a fair cross-section of our community. But even-handed representation does not necessarily generate the useful dialogues and decisions that make a difference.

I've sat on many committees where I've been the only woman, representing pastors' wives, mothers, children and siblings. After several years of frustration I identified the heart of my challenge. However logically I presented my case, or however passionately and eloquently I expressed the thoughts and wishes of the groups I represented, I was only one voice and one vote in a group of twenty, thirty, or a hundred men--outnumbered and unwittingly invalidated.

I recently prepared for a training workshop and found the matter succinctly described, of all places, on Wikipedia:

"It is popularly held that diverse groups can provide the best results, but one of the worst situations is to include token members within a group because it is statistically shown that nearly all suggestions made by the token individual will be discounted by the majority group without consideration. The token member becomes the unheard member."

How will we open our ears and minds to the unheard stories? How will we listen responsively to the wisdom of the professional lay people in our community? To the voices of women who are skilled in nurture and relationships? To the whispers of children and young people who walk away from our church because we're too busy listening to the grown-ups? And how can we prevent token-committee-member frustration and burn-out when their individual voices struggle to be heard within an overflowing agenda?

The leaders of one church community recently travelled across their country listening to the celebrations and struggles of their members. These personal stories led to the development of several innovative and practical projects, which addressed the real needs of their church community--family spirituality, enriching marriages and making church more child and family friendly.

But it takes time and creativity to listen well. As a family therapist it's vital that I enable the amplification of the outnumbered and invalidated voices in the families with whom I work. My skills are challenged when I work with a child whose voice has been lost in the chaos of a distressed and overwhelmed family. It takes time to build his confidence and create the space where his silenced, forgotten whispers can be heard. The child is too small by himself. I have to listen to him, support him, and join my voice with his, until the adults in his world can hear his hurts, fears, perspectives and hopes. He needs to be more than an outnumbered, token member of that family's "committee." His emotional health and wellbeing is at risk.

God is the Listener of listeners because He responds to the needs of the oppressed, imprisoned, outcast and unheard. 'You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.' Psalm 10:17 (NIV). Being too agenda-focused to listen to each other robs our community of valuable resources.

Listening creatively will challenge our traditional style of management and meetings, but it brings forth new ideas, fresh understandings, deeper compassion, richer wisdom and, above all, hope for the unheard.

--Karen Holford is a family therapist living in Scotland. She is the author of several books, including "The Family Book," and "100 Creative Prayer Ideas for Kids."