Missionaries Ought to Know About ...
What Missionaries Ought to Know about Groupthink
Dr. Ronald Koteskey
this as a pdf
this happened to a missionary. After the fourth meeting about a
new project which the long-time field director proposed and strongly
supported, Pat was still troubled by misgivings. When she
considered the cost of the project and the condition of the economy,
proceeding with the project just did not seem wise. When another first
term missionary began to raise questions, a veteran missionary quickly
accused her of having too little faith. Certainly the project
would help people, and it could be God’s will, so Pat voted for it along
with the others, but she still felt uneasy.
Later, after the project was abandoned and their agency had lost many
thousands of dollars, Pat and several of the others who had voted for it
talked about how they were like the man who began the tower but could
not finish it (Luke 14:28-30). As they talked, they asked
themselves, “How could we all have voted for it? It is so obvious
now that it would not succeed.” What happened to them was
What is groupthink?
Irving Janis, the first person to study it in detail, defined
groupthink as the kind of thinking people do when they are committed to
a cohesive group and their striving for unanimity overcomes their
ability to be realistic about which action to take. Individual
uniqueness, creativity, and independent thinking are left behind in
protecting the cohesiveness of the group. People do not want to
appear foolish or to upset the group so they set their doubts aside and
make irrational decisions.
Janis studied American foreign policy disasters such as Pearl Harbor
in 1941 and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. Most missionaries
today remember the American government’s decision to attack Iraq in 2003
to destroy the weapons of mass destruction although many USA citizens
and most of the rest of the world did not think it was wise.
Groupthink is not only something that politicians may do, but also it is
something missionaries may do.
Did groupthink happen in the Bible?
We do not have enough details to be sure but groupthink appears to
have happened shortly after King Solomon died. His son, Rehoboam,
became king and soon asked Solomon’s advisors about how to respond to a
difficult situation. Rehoboam rejected their good advice to serve
the people, and then he consulted some young men with whom he had grown
up. These young men gave him bad advice to treat the people
harshly. He did so, lost many of his subjects, and barely escaped
alive to Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:8-20).
Conditions leading to groupthink
Though nothing has been proven to cause groupthink, several
conditions may make groupthink more likely. Here are several of
these conditions relevant to missionaries on the field.
- Highly cohesive group. Missionaries value the closeness of
their group because there are few people nearby with whom they can
- Insulation of the group. Missionaries have few people to
talk with because they are far from their passport countries.
- Directive leadership. Field directors may tell
missionaries what they would like to see done rather than asking
what should be done.
- Homogenous group. The selection process in choosing missionaries
often results in people with similar values, ways of thinking,
education, and so forth.
- External threats. Missionaries often live under difficult
situations with political, safety, and health threats surrounding
- Difficult decisions. Differences with values in the host
culture may make “simple” decisions very difficult.
Symptoms of groupthink
Some of the symptoms indicating that groupthink is in progress
follow. Beware if you notice any of them as your group meets.
- Illusion of invulnerability, such as “This can’t fail because
God is on our side.”
- Collective rationalization of warnings that challenge
assumptions. For example, if a secular consultant says that
money will not come in for the project, group members agree that she
just does not understand faith promises.
- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, such as
“Because we are God’s children, what we are doing must be an ethical
or good thing to do.”
- Stereotyping people outside the group as weak, biased, stupid,
or even evil. For example, nationals opposed to building a
church in their neighborhood may be characterized as under demonic
- Pressure on dissenting group members to conform by suggesting
they lack faith if they do not support the decision.
- Illusion of unanimity among group members because the silence of
others is taken as agreement even though most of the committee may
think the idea is doomed to failure.
- Self-censorship in which members do not express doubts because
of the apparent consensus among other group members. Because
it looks like the whole field committee agrees, no one is willing to
look like a Doubting Thomas.
- Self-appointed “mindguards” who shield the group from
problematic information. Committee members who are in favor of
the project may take it upon themselves to see that conflicting
financial reports are suppressed or taking aside any missionary who
expresses doubts and pleading for unity behind the field director’s
Results of groupthink
Consensus-driven decisions lead to the following types of problems.
- The group does not completely study what needs to be
accomplished. They begin planning the building before exploring
whether or not it really needs to be built.
- The group does not explore all available alternative actions.
Perhaps the agency could afford to rent or buy an existing building
rather than building a new one.
- The group does not thoroughly study the risks of the preferred
choice. Will the project be seen by supporters as low
priority, too ostentatious, or a waste of money?
- The group selectively looks for confirming information.
Committee members do not take time to ferret out facts that indicate
it is a poor choice.
- The group does not formulate any contingency plan, Plan B.
They are so sure they are right that they give no thought to what
they might do if Plan A fails.
Groupthink may be less likely if some of the following suggestions
- Leaders do not express their opinions or preferences when
assigning the task.
- Leaders encourage each group member to express objections and
doubts when the group meets.
- Members of the group routinely discuss plans or progress with
trusted persons outside the group, such as nationals or those in
- Outside experts should be invited to meetings on a staggered
basis and encouraged to challenge views expressed.
- At each meeting a different member of the group should be the
“Devil’s advocate” assigned to point out possible flaws and suggest
- Before final approval at least one meeting should be devoted to
consider all warning signals members can think of.
Of course, in avoiding groupthink, people must not go to the opposite
extreme and be so cautious that they get caught in gridlock and do not
approve any solution.
Differences between unity of the Spirit and the unanimity of
Finally, the unanimity of groupthink must not be confused with the
“unity of the Spirit” described in Ephesians 4:3. The unanimity of
groupthink comes from a set of assumptions that must not be questioned.
Unity of the Spirit comes from a Christian set of assumptions and a
common purpose of being united with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5).
After the first term of Christian missionary service, a problem
surfaced which illustrates the difference between the unity of the
Spirit and the unanimity of groupthink. When they reached the
church in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas met with the apostles, elders,
and the church. They reported the results of their service, and
some of the believers present stood up and said that the converts had to
be circumcised and obey Moses’ law. Then the apostles and elders
met to consider this (Acts 15).
- There was much discussion (v. 7).
- Peter, not the leader of this group but someone with previous
experience with this issue, addressed the group (v. 7).
- Barnabas and Paul reported what God had done among the Gentiles
- The group became silent as they listened to this report (v. 12).
- Only when they finished did James (leader of the group) give his
opinion on what should be done (vv. 13-21).
- To implement their action we read that the apostles and elders,
with the whole church decided…” (v. 22), and they wrote in their
letter, “So we all agreed to…” (v. 25).
was unity in the Spirit, quite different from the unanimity of
groupthink. The leader did not express his opinion at the
beginning; people from both sides of the issue spoke; people were quiet
as they listened; there was much discussion; in the end a decision was
reached that the Gentiles involved “read it and were glad for its
encouraging message.” Missionaries must be careful to distinguish
between the unity of the Spirit and groupthink.
Member Care Consultant