The Fresh Air of Open Debate

by | Apr 30, 2018 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

Photo Credit: St. Cloud Times

Before I begin this month’s column, let me encourage you to read Winston Presnall’s tribute to Diane Woollett at her memorial service on April 28. Diane was the Clerk of Session at First Presbyterian Church of Orange for many years until her death from pulmonary fibrosis on April 10, 2018. Winston’s words are possibly the most Scripturally anchored description I have heard of a Clerk of Session’s work, and a true tribute to a faithful servant.

Another Stated Meeting of Presbytery is just around the corner. We will interview two—perhaps three—Inquirers to determine their “suitability for ordered ministry” (G-2.0603). We will consider a congregational call for an Associate Pastor to become their Pastor (G-2.0504(c)). We will decide whether to let a congregation elect a ruling elder to serve on Session for a seventh consecutive year (G-2.0404). We will receive an update from another congregation regarding a parallel start.

Such topics present a challenge to what we call the “business meeting.” On the one hand, we love the thought of a meeting as brisk as the one GA Co-Moderator Denise Anderson described last November. Milwaukee Presbytery has gained fame in mid-council circles for dispatching its business in under an hour.

(Remarkably, we came close. The November 2017 business meeting only lasted ninety minutes. Murphy must have been on vacation).

On the other hand, some conversations should take place at stated meetings. The Book of Order forbids us from delegating certain items. When our Standing Rules do not allow us to delegate, the work remains with the whole body. And sometimes a committee or team believes that even though it doesn’t need the Presbytery’s direct approval, they still should obtain it.

A New Tension

As soon as we invite discussion, we enter into a new tension. On the one hand, we want an efficient and economical conversation. Overly long verbal presentations interfere with corporate discernment. Dubiously germane questions take time away from other subjects.

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When we experience wasteful deliberation, we are tempted to suppress it. We look for ways to reduce body-wide decision making. We suggest scripting others’ presentations to keep them on task.

But these are temptations. Though we may flirt with such ideas, they are not the better part of wisdom. For the other side of efficiency is the need for our debates to be candid, mature, and complete.

Suppressed voices do not remain silent. When we silence healthy concerns, they do not simply disappear. They go underground, metastasize, and return pernicious, no longer inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. The best prevention for such mistrust is the fresh air of open debate.

What’s more, attempts to quiet the ones we think of as over-talkers seldom work. The hesitant ones—those who should speak up more—are more likely to take to heart any encouragement to stay on schedule. Better to lift up the principle in Robert’s Rules that each person may speak once, and only once, for any action item.

Consider Junior High Basketball

Managing a meeting well, then, is like refereeing a junior high basketball game. Too accommodating, and the game descends into a brawl. Too restrictive, and the game never finds its natural rhythm. Such is the challenge of designing and moderating the deliberations of a large group.

Photo Credit: Nick Graham, Middleton Journal-News

I can think of only three ways to keep business routinely under an hour. First, meet far more frequently, so that business does not accumulate. Second, become so uninteresting that we have nothing to approve. Third, delegate everything the Book of Order allows. Only the last seems remotely attractive.

And more attractive still is a set of well-balanced debates, in which the most far-reaching decisions receive the most attention, and thoughtful questions raise the most important implications. When we practice such a pattern together, over time a wide variety of people from a wide variety of communities in the region will come together to in sharing God’s plan for the Gospel to go forth.

Somewhere along the Way–