Groupthink in church

By Andrew Babyak

Groupthink refers to the increase of conformity within a group that leads to the acceptance of the prevailing viewpoint without critical consideration. For example, nine months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, a military report concluded that a dawn attack by Japanese airplanes could achieve complete surprise. But, senior levels of American command didn’t believe that it was feasible because they believed the Japanese would never take such a chance. Many of the false assumptions resulted from the American military’s decision-making group falling prey to groupthink, which resulted in a failure to respond to clear warnings. The failure led to the American involvement in World War II.
Some of the attributes of groupthink are:

  • People are friendly and desire complete agreement on every important issue.
  • People avoid sharing harsh judgments of leaders’ ideas.
  • People avoid conflict and criticism with others.

Many pastors might not be able to see that their churches are experiencing groupthink. Churches affected by groupthink often have illusions of invulnerability, which create unwarranted optimism, causing leaders to take extraordinary risks because they’re blind to clear warning signs.

Several years ago, I attended a national meeting for a large denomination in the U.S. When the national budget was brought to the floor, many pastors stood and gave passionate speeches urging a 5 percent increase in the coming year as an act of faith, even though the budget wasn’t met that fiscal year. Every single person who spoke to the issue was in favor of the increase. As one might expect, the following fiscal year resulted in many problems for the denomination, and significant cuts began shortly thereafter.

One year earlier, some pastors and workers had shared quietly in the hallways that they were worried about the new budget, but they lacked the confidence to express their viewpoints in the main sessions because of their fear of speaking against the leaders and the majority.

This example epitomizes the problem of groupthink. Excessive optimism and fear of creating conflict blinded the denomination to clear warning signs — and they suffered for it.

Churches are tempted to believe that because they’re led by God, every decision they make will be correct and result in blessings. Countless churches have embarked upon building projects only to find that they decline, or that their senior pastors become casualties, because the negative consequences of building expansion weren’t adequately evaluated.

Groups experiencing groupthink often stereotype those who oppose the group as weak, ignorant or not spiritual enough. Church board members who feel they’re not well-received for raising different ideas usually quit or are asked to resign because their views are perceived as threatening.

If the dissenting viewpoints are expressed in love and in an effort to really contribute to solutions, churches must find ways to encourage such people because it will prevent the church from making serious mistakes. This person might become a critical evaluator or a natural devil’s advocate that the group embraces.

Another key in avoiding groupthink is for pastors to avoid expressing their personal opinions when leading discussions. This allows group members to feel the freedom to express their true feelings without worrying that they’re disagreeing with the pastor. It might also be helpful to assign two independent groups to study the same issue before making important decisions. This might mean that the governing board and a special ad-hoc committee consider the same question without initially consulting one another. After discussion, the two groups can come together and work toward a solution, having more assurance that all alternatives have been examined.

Churches might encounter serious problems if they don’t consider all viewpoints. May we lead our churches and denominations with the faith of Abraham and the wisdom of Solomon.

Andrew Babyak is assistant professor of management at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, NC.


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