In our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017) we have a number of case studies about how churches have used, or not used, consensus-building processes in a positive way. (Purchase the book here.) One of the disappointing stories is from the 2016 United Methodist General Conference. Its theme was “Therefore, Go!” A focus on mission was overshadowed by a painful struggle to deal with a hot issue in the church: homosexuality and leadership. This debate highlighted the division in the church. Many delegates were relieved to “go” and leave the experience behind.
Practices Creating Division
- the General Conference continued deepening patterns of creating “losers” in the way people talked about one another and dug lines in the sand
- important issues were defeated with little conversation by using delaying tactics such as numerous Points of Order and Calling for the Question to kill discussion
- petitions were defeated or supported in Committee sub-groups with low numbers deciding (i.e. 20-9)
- valuable time and resources were squandered
- people were exhausted and frustrated
- division was hardened
Robert’s Rules of Order
Our observation is that Robert’s Rules of Order created chaos and confusion, and reinforced the divisions among the delegates. It did not provide a way forward. It’s time to do something different that actually works.
When a matter is simple and put before the body to decide, Robert’s Rules adequately guides the process. The idea is seconded, discussed, possibly amended (improved), and voted yes or no. However, when a matter is complex or the group has more fear than faith then the process is very unhelpful. It can be manipulated, misinformation sown that cannot be challenged, people damaged, division hardened and confusion flourishes.
This is what happened in Portland.
Alternatives are available
Another process (Rule 44) would have allowed delegates to use an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order. It offered delegates the opportunity to
- convene in small groups for prayer, conversation and discernment
- understand the reasons for division and build respect and understanding
- provide feedback to a drafting group that would take their insights and provide recommendations for the next stage
- hear a report of their deliberations and seek the creative movement of the Holy Spirit
- discuss / discern further and decide the matter with a traditional vote.
Simple. The actual process takes far less time than it took to defeat it.
Are you up for the challenge?
We are challenging denominations to use another process to Robert’s Rules to make decisions. The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017) provides such a process and is available at Cokesbury or at Amazon. We invite you to use it in your church, Annual Conference and perhaps some day it will also be used at the General Conference.
Helpful practices for avoiding division
This new resource explains the process and how to use it successfully. The process can be tailored to fit any size group and address any topic. It is written to support leaders as they make a shift in their current way of making important choices. The aim is to exchange entrenched division with consensus-building discernment. It is designed to:
- Help your group identify the Christian values your community seeks to live by and to do so with integrity.
- Deal with conflict and resistance to change so discussions can be redemptive and transforming instead of paralysing.
- Provide simple steps (supported with the Means of Grace) to guide deliberations and decide issues in your context.
- Prepare the work ahead — make arrangements to support the process in your context, train leaders, form discussion groups, etc.
- Invite people to participate — name the issue, and provide information for their consideration.
- Make the decision in your faith community.
- Implement and evaluate your decision.
In our case studies it is when people talk ‘to’ each other rather than ‘at’ each other that Christian community and discernment are apparent.
If you believe it is time to have an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order when making church decisions, let us know. Leave a post with your comments. We are very interested in your hopes and experience!
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