Can the Spirit Work through Robert’s Rules?

January 13, 2012

Presbyterians, especially those who have been tracking General Assembly with interest the last few years, are generally acquainted with a particular method of decision-making. This method relies on orderly process according to Robert’s Rules of Order so that everybody can follow along and know when their opportunities for input and commitment arrive.  Robert’s Rules offer a helpful framework for discussion, consideration of alternative ideas, and are especially known for giving voice to those with a minority viewpoint. Until the final vote, folks have the opportunity to offer amendments, substitute motions, or points of information that help the body thoroughly explore the options. When the vote is taken, the majority rules and the body knows how to act as a result.

Considerable pressure is being placed on governing bodies to develop and use alternative “methods of discernment,” most especially the consensus model in ecclesiastical decision-making. The idea is that the conversation can be more free-flowing, not hung up on “rules,” and more conducive to “listening” for the Holy Spirit’s input. The hope is that the discussion will move toward a general agreement, which is adopted not by vote but by acclamation when it is felt the coalescing moment has arrived. Consensus decision-making is a natural fit for a group that knows each other well and enjoys a high level of trust. In such a case, it is perhaps the most efficient way to get things done.

However, I am not a big fan of consensus decision-making in large or contentious groups, because it tends to silence those with a differing viewpoint. It’s like a card game of “Oh, Hell.” The person who makes the opening bid has an advantage that sets the tone for that particular hand. So it is in a consensus discussion: whoever speaks first often sets the tone and direction of the discussion, and a timid (or polite) group member may not be able to introduce an idea that is based on a different premise or set of presumptions. I have seen this happen at General Assembly committee meetings with disastrous results and do not believe in the end that the exploration is as thorough (and certainly not as orderly) as a discussion governed by Robert’s Rules.

The question arises then: Can the Holy Spirit work through a Robert’s Rules-based discussion? Or do the rules preclude the Spirit from speaking and from God’s people discerning the Spirit’s leading? The church has been ordering its debate for centuries by a time-honored method, in which people prepare and deliver remarks meant to give information, share opinion, open Scripture, and otherwise debate the pros and cons of a particular action. Of course, the Spirit can work in that kind of process! It is only in very recent years that the polarization of the PCUSA has been blamed on using Robert’s Rules, where eventually there is a yes-or-no vote. It is what we do with the aftermath that displays our confidence in the Spirit’s work or our doubt about the Spirit’s presence in the process. And yes, “councils may err,” but it is not because they employed a process governed by a rule-book.

So now we come to the Fellowship of Presbyterians meeting next week. The agenda and schedule have been published and can be found here.  There is a lot of presenting and discussing around tables, and even a covenanting session at the end; there does not appear to be a “moderator” or an established “voting membership” (since “it” isn’t an organization yet).  Inclusion is demonstrated in the existence of many presenters and table and workshop leaders who will be guiding discussions of various sizes. This input method reflects a “level playing field” philosophy, and I applaud it. When it comes time to “decide,” though, I think the convocation should allow for a full-scale governing-body meeting according to Robert’s Rules in which the foundational documents are voted upon section by section. Though the group is huge (2100 participants, twice the size of a General Assembly), I believe there is a wide theological consensus and level of trust going in. But it is part of the Presbyterian DNA to vote, as a way of being counted. So I am praying for a magnificent unity of the Spirit freely to move among the attendees, while hoping the groundwork for robust debate and clear decision-making is laid for future meetings. The decisions to form what looks like a new denomination are of extraordinary import and deserve the reassuring, defined parameters of Spirit-led, orderly process.


5 Responses to “Can the Spirit Work through Robert’s Rules?”

  1. Steve N. Says:

    Mary, I think your blog is well argued. I would suggest perhaps that instead of asking if the Spirit can work through Roberts Rules, the question is can the Spirit work through the Consensus building? As you point out, it can in a small group (say a board of deacons or a session). I would think in a larger group consensus building would severely hamper the Spirit.

  2. Pam von Gohren Says:

    And I would argue that the question is neither if nor can but whether Christ-followers will, indeed, not only claim to follow, but first be silent before the Lord/Holy Spirit long enough to hear Him. Submission of self to the will of God does not come easily. The latent power of our souls prevents the Holy Spirit’s voice from being heard. Wonder what would happen if thirty minutes of silent prayer (no reading or peeking, kneeling optional) preceded every vote?

  3. Steve N. Says:

    At the risk of exposing one of my few weaknesses, I hope I am never at a meeting with a 30 minute prayer before vote. You would have to wake me up I am afraid. Besides, how long would that meeting take? But then again, I think if I was in the public school systems as a student, I would be diagnosed with ADHD lol.

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