Value in unity

Published 10:22 am Saturday, August 8, 2009

My father, a simple preacher of the Gospel, taught me an early lesson about the power of consensus.

In a denomination that allowed its congregations to hire and fire their pastors, Dad would occasionally “try out” for a larger church. We would head out early on Sunday morning to a strange town and strange church, where he would preach during morning worship while the congregation sized up him — and us. We’d usually eat a potluck lunch — “dinner on the ground,” we called it in the Deep South — and head back home, eagerly awaiting a phone call the next morning on whether he would be offered the job. The membership typically would convene Sunday night and vote on whether to “call” Dad as the church’s next pastor.

Dad’s philosophy — applied so rigidly as to become a personal rule — was that he would only accept if the congregation’s vote was unanimous. He had learned during his years of ministry that leading a flock is a difficult enough job even when everyone is singing from the same hymnbook. Division within the congregation makes the job nearly impossible.

He also believed strongly that the church and its mission — sharing Christianity with unbelievers — were bigger than any individual or personal ambition.

That selfless approach probably cost him much in worldly advancement and possessions over the years. Yet, as the sun sets on his long, healthy life, I know of no regret.

I thought of my father recently when a reader called to challenge our newspaper’s editorial support of the Franklin City Council decision to reopen school board nominations with the goal of finding consensus candidates.

Dad taught me, through his actions, that certain situations require us to sacrifice personal ambition for the greater good. Like, I suspect, the snubbed school board nominees, he believed himself qualified for the job, had done nothing wrong, and hardly knew his detractors, much less their motives for opposing him. He only knew the power of unity — and the destructiveness of division.

It is possible, of course, to strong-arm one’s way through life with no regard for consensus. It can work in private business, where the buck stops with the boss. It rarely works in families or in the political arena, where power is shared among diverse interests. That’s why business leaders, who are used to getting their way, tend to fare poorly in politics. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire, is a classic example from modern history.

The most successful politicians of my lifetime have been those who reached across partisan lines to build coalitions. Ronald Reagan was the master. So-called “Reagan Democrats” were critical to his successes in foreign and economic policy. First-term, pre-Lewinsky Bill Clinton showed similar potential. Neither of the Bushes could do it, and Barack Obama is off to a poor start as a uniter, his few policy victories to date coming on strictly party-line votes.

Franklin’s City Council, by a decisive 6-1 margin, spoke unequivocally last month about its desire to find school board members who will unite, not divide, the council and this community.

That consensus-building approach has served the city and its citizenry beautifully over the past 13 months. This council has rejected the divisive decision-making of its predecessors and joined together across racial lines to stop the steady rise of property taxes, to curb runaway spending and to make city government more citizen- and business-friendly.

It has earned the opportunity to seek the same consensus on school board appointments. Whether council members are successful remains to be seen. They might, in the end, wind up deadlocked 4-3 on an appointment or two. But they — and the community they represent — will be better because of the dialog and the attempt.