Robert’s Rules and the Lesser of Evils

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“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, November 1947).

The Native Alaskans among whom my wife and I ministered for ten years loved parliamentary procedure. For a particular family in our congregation, receiving one’s own, up-to-date copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, was the rite of passage upon turning eighteen years old. You had come into adulthood in the clan.

(Geek note: My “street cred” among Native Alaskans skyrocketed when I instructed the president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood on a finer point of parliamentary procedure. Not only did they love that way of doing business—they loved it when outsiders valued their ways).

Yet outside of the Native Alaskan community, I have heard repeated complaints about how Presbyterians do business. Parliamentary procedure, the critics say, is divisive; it gives the advantage to experts; it strips issues of their nuances.

I acknowledge the problems. Churchill’s quote reminds me of Robert’s Rules of Order: It is a badly flawed way to make decisions. But for a large group with strong opinions on complicated questions, Robert’s Rules excels. That is because Robert’s ultimately upholds three values:

Clarity: Our decision exactly matches the language of the (amended) motion. As long as the motion’s language is easy to see, everyone knows the stakes. And Robert’s has steps for untangling almost any tangle we create.

Speed: Though it may take time to work out details, the proceedings can move forward as soon as a majority agrees.

Fairness: Even when a majority agrees, the minority does not lose its voice. Opportunities remain to vote “no.” When a “no” vote is not strong enough, the minority may make its position clear through dissent and protest. The process acknowledges the minority’s opposition, even as the work goes forward.

Why have I committed this column to parliamentary procedure? Another Presbytery Gathering will take place on November 19. Before the end of the business meeting, you may find yourself (once again?) frustrated with how we do business. In response, I offer three reminders.

First, most of the Gathering does not follow parliamentary procedure. Nearly two-thirds of the time is devoted to common discipleship: worship, table fellowship, and developing mission. If you only attend the business meeting, and then complain that “Presbytery is too focused on parliamentary procedure,” then you need to arrive earlier. If your job makes an earlier arrival difficult, please know that we are working to schedule the gatherings to make the common discipleship more accessible.

Second, the business meeting is still essential. As long as we are Presbyterian (and not Episcopalian, for instance), we will make difficult decisions about complicated subjects in large groups. Parliamentary procedure is the best way to do so.

Finally, the people on the dais want to help you. Your moderators may clamp down on grandstanding and abuse, but they are remarkably patient with well-meaning people. If you have an idea for breaking a deadlock, but don’t know what it’s called, ask. Right there on the floor. We will coach you through your confusion as best as we can.

Frankly, few of the problems that arise under parliamentary procedure are procedural. Rather, we run into problems when we misunderstand and misapply the procedures that would otherwise serve us well. If we were as good at Robert’s Rules as the Native Alaskans, I expect we would complain about it much less.

3 Responses to Robert’s Rules and the Lesser of Evils

  1. Ed Bush says:

    You should take a look and Rosenberg’s Rules of Order. Built on getting the job done, rather than mistrust.

  2. Dan says:

    “Why have I committed this column to parliamentary procedure? Another Presbytery Gathering will take place on November 19. Before the end of the business meeting, you may find yourself (once again?) frustrated with how we do business. In response, I offer three reminders.”

    I am pleased to see that I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the September business meeting.

    “Second, the business meeting is still essential. As long as we are Presbyterian (and not Episcopalian, for instance), we will make difficult decisions about complicated subjects in large groups. Parliamentary procedure is the best way to do so.”

    My recollection of the September business meeting is that there were not actually any “difficult decisions about complicated subjects”. There were a number of motions up for discussion and vote, but there was not any spirited discussion of any motion, and all votes were unanimous, with the sole exception that there was some spirited questioning of the ordination candidate, and a non-unanimous vote to end the candidate’s questioning while there was still a questioner waiting at the microphone.
    (The ordination vote itself was unanimous.)

    There are of course “difficult decisions about complicated subjects” facing the Presbytery, including whether to continue to allow churches to leave on gracious terms, and how to adapt to a smaller membership. But we were advised that it would be unwise to make major decisions while effectively
    still in a state of shock.

    There seemed to be lots of frustration regarding the procedural issue of seconding motions. Forrest Claassen had to interrupt the meeting numerous times, sometimes to point out that a motion couldn’t be discussed without it first being seconded, and other times to point out after a motion was seconded that the seconding was not needed.

    The purpose of requiring a second is to prevent time being wasted by the assembly’s having to dispose of a motion that only one person wants to see introduced. But that purpose was never realized, since
    all motions were seconded.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_(parliamentary_procedure) suggests:

    Ray Keesey states, “Motions need not be seconded. The requirement of a second is largely a waste of time. What member is so destitute of friends that he can’t find one willing to second his motion? The traditional justification for requiring a second is that at least two members would support a motion to justify its consideration. … There is nothing essentially wrong with the practice of seconding. It is simply unnecessary.[9]

    Tilson’s Manual advises against the use of seconds, stating, “It would seem that nothing could be more nearly useless and unnecessary than for some identified voice from the midst of the assembly to boom out, ‘I second it’.”[10]

    Mason’s Manual states that “Parliamentary practice in American governmental bodies does not require seconds to motions, and in Parliament itself, where the practice of seconding motions originated, they have not been required for more than a century.”[11]

    • Dan says:

      At the November 19 business meeting, the moderator and vice moderator were very careful on each motion to announce whether or not the motion needed a second, and why. In almost every case they got it right. But on one of the last motions of the evening, to validate some special projects of the Challenge Fund, the moderator announced that no second was needed because the motion was coming from Council rather than from the floor. But although the motion was coming from Council, it had not been voted on by Council, so it did need to be seconded. So everyone’s time was wasted straightening out the need for a second.

      There is some irony with regard to the recent blog article:
      https://losranchos.org/i-dont-have-a-big-leather-chair/
      which espouses versatility and fine tuning, virtues that seem to be lacking with regard to the inflexible and ill-suited requirements for seconding motions.

      “In other words, my chair is a highly versatile, highly technical instrument, resulting from years of development and perfectly suited to helping me do my work as effectively as I can. It is rather expensive, but the cost is worth it.

      “It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about chairs, or the people who occupy them, or the body those people serve. The point is the same. We are better off, not with overstuffed status symbols, but with highly tuned units that respond and adjust to allow our work to go forward as effectively as possible.”

      p.s.
      There were other procedural absurdities as well. Ms. Doska Ross, Synod Stated Clerk, was invited to the podium by the moderator to make an announcement. Instead of simply making her announcement, she felt the need to interrupt the proceedings in order to use the podium to ask special permission from the moderator to speak from the podium. I don’t know whether the moderator mistakenly assumed Ms. Ross was permitted to speak, or whether Ms. Ross mistakenly assumed she wasn’t permitted to speak, but in either case the rules did not “allow our work to go forward as effectively as possible”.

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