Robert’s Rules and the Lesser of Evils
“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.