Do the Practices of Synod Diminish its Deliberative Nature?

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Since 1997, when the denomination went to a one-week synod, a number of delegates have observed that there is simply not enough time to discuss the matters under consideration. The eye is always on the clock, and sometimes motions are made to restrict speeches to a certain number of minutes or to restrict discussion to a certain length of time. The result is that synod is losing its deliberative nature. Some have even quipped, “Since discussion is not valued anyway, why don’t delegates just stay home and email their votes to the denominational office.”More recently, various practices have been introduced that seem to hinder synod’s deliberative nature. 

I attended Synod 2010 and was surprised that delegates were told they had to write out motions they wanted to make and bring them to the clerks of synod. Shortly after synod began I made a very simple motion that was understood by the chair and by all the delegates. I did not write it out and was not asked to do so. However, as synod progressed, other delegates were told, “Please write out your motion and give it to one of the clerks and then we’ll consider it.” Some did; some didn’t. Naturally, the discussion moved on while delegates so instructed wrote out their motion and synod, in essence, had to “back up” to consider it when it was finally submitted.

A delegate informed me that Synod 2011 was instructed in the same way. He later informed me, “Some motions from the floor were made today, amendments for the most part. That worked fine, with the chair being generous about the "turn it in in writing first" rule.

My primary concern is not about how “generous” the chair may or may not be. I’m concerned about how this new rule ever became a rule and very concerned about how this new rule affects the deliberative nature of synod.

I understand the intent of the rule. If delegates know they’re going to make a particular motion, it’s very helpful to have the motion on a screen so all delegates can see the precise wording of the motion. And I’ve been informed that the computers now used by each delegate make that very easy to do.

But some motions arise out of the discussion in which synod engages. They are not prepared in advance but result because of something a previous speaker has just said. To tell delegates they can’t make a motion unless they first write it down and submit it to the officers breaks the flow of discussion and discourages delegates from making motions. Any delegate should feel free to make a motion at any time. True, it may take a minute or two to get the motion on a screen, but synod has four officers and a very competent Director of Synodical Services who can facilitate that process.

Another new practice is the elimination of microphones at each table. At previous synods, delegates pressed a button on the console at their table to indicate that they wished to speak to the motion. The console informed them how many speakers were ahead of them and later informed them when they would be the next speaker so they could be prepared. At any time in the discussion the delegates could cancel their request to speak if they judged a previous speaker said what they intended to say.

Now three or four microphones are placed on the synodical floor. If delegates wish to speak, they must stand in line behind one of those microphones. Depending on how many delegates wish to speak to an issue, a delegate can stand there for an extended length of time. Personally, I can easily adjust to this new practice, but I wonder if this is intimidating, especially to first time delegates who normally are hesitant to speak in the first place. That’s an important question since 65% of the delegates to Synod 2011 were first time delegates (59% in 2010; 49% in 2009; 57% in 2008).

We need to make participation in synod as inviting as possible. Telling delegates they must write out all motions before they make them and asking delegates to stand for an extended period of time on the floor of synod if they wish to speak seems inhospitable. I suspect this stifles discussion and harms the deliberative nature of synod. 

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Participant

I empathize with the need to write out their motions- after 11yrs as Classis Stated Clerk I have come to know how misunderstood/represented/recorded motions can "come back to bite you!"

Perhaps the motion can be written out exactly as stated and delivered by the "mover" and handed to the chair before the end of the day's session would clarify(I know you loath that word George:-), I do that at our Classis.

Yes, the motion must be stated by the Chair prior to vote- but my experience everyone by that time is nodding their heads on what they have heard and not what was said.

Perhaps allowing a little latitude on delivery of the written document would take away a little of the "hostility" as you call it for "prior intent." When it is written down no one can say, "That was not my motion or intent." 

I appreciate that George has articulated the reaction I also had to Synod's new practices.  Other first-time delegates told me that they also felt intimidated as I did in 2010 when we had to leave our tables to stand at a mike across the room in order to speak. 

And while I sympathize with the desire to get the wording of an amendment just right, I too thought that requiring delegates to write motions out and get them to the clerk BEFORE being able to talk about them was disruptive and hindered the actual discussion. 

Mary-Lee Bouma

I'll  second the motion George.  Although I can also agree with the importance of written  verification of motions.

Maybe we should look at a system of first and second year delegates so we still get a lot of new blood but also a little more

experience built in.  It would also give the opportunity  to do some coaching/mentoring at the classis level.

I was a first year delegate this year.  So it was a lot of new info to digest.

I am also a working elder,  so a two week Synod would be even harder to schedule/afford.  vvvv 

Bo  Verburg

All of us agree that a motion projected on a screen is a good thing.  That way delegates address the real motion, not what they think the motion is.  Apparently, the computers of Synod 2011 were a good step in the right direction, a benefit that Synod 2010 did not have. 

But how do we deal with a motion that comes when a speaker standing in line gets an idea from something a previous speaker has just said?  Do we tell the delegate to go back to his/her computer and type it out so we can consider it when it’s ready?  Or do we take the time to get the motion typed out when the delegate makes it so we consider it in the flow of the discussion?   I vote for the latter.

You talk about experience.  Dee Recker, the Director of Synodical Services, has more experience than anyone on synod’s floor.  She can get a motion down faster than any of the officers of synod.  For her it’s no big deal.  (You can tell me if I’m wrong, Dee!!)  We shouldn’t restrict the delegates with this new rule, which is not in the Rules for Synodical Procedure and which has not been approved by synod. 

The former Director of Ministries said to me, “George, don’t write an overture about some stuff, especially editorial stuff.   Let the synodical office know your concerns because there are some things we can do.” I’ll talk to the new executive director (he and I served in the same classis for a number of years) and if this same procedure will be used at Synod 2012, I'll write an overture to that synod asking that it not be used.  

You also talked about the high percentage of first-time delegates.  That concerns me, too.  It’s nice that people are willing to go to synod, but I wonder why some people are not interested in returning to synod.  Some classes have a silly (in my opinion) policy of delegating a ministerial delegate by rotation so everyone gets a chance to attend synod. I wonder if this sends a message that attending synod is some kind of honor.  It strikes me that we need to send our most capable and most interested people to synod.  I was in a classis where a delegate said, “Rev. So and So has been in this classis over 10 years, and he’s never gone to synod.  Even after that speech classis did not elect him because he never participated in the discussions at classis meetings.  Another minister fell asleep during our classis meetings.  Should we delegate him to synod?

It’s interesting that in our discussions about ethnic diversity we are quick to say, “We want the most capable people, not someone who’s appointed because of skin color or ethnic origin.  However, when it comes to synodical delegates it seems that we are sometimes  interested in following a rotation or filling a spot, not in asking “Who’s the most qualified to attend synod this year, given the matters that are under discussion?”

I know such comments open me up to attack.  People will say, “George thinks he ought to go every year because he’s experienced."  That’s not what’s I’m saying.  I’m wondering what criteria we use when electing synodical delegates.

The high number of first time delegates gives me pause.  What gives me even more pause is the number of synodical agendas lying on delegates’ tables that look as if they’ve never been opened—fresh out of the box.  They could belong to first or fifth time delegates, but do delegates actually read the agenda (at least the portion that’s assigned to their advisory committee) or do they decide to vote with the most persuasive speaker?  Or is everything now done on line and I’m just an old fart who doesn’t understand the new reality?

In terms of a two-week synod, synod has a policy about reimbursement for delegates who must take time off work to attend synod.  It’s probably antiquated, but it  can be revisited or classes can make their own policies.  Our synodical delegation  ought not be limited by financial issues.

Such practices do impede Synod's ability to function as a deliberative body.  So also does the short time-frame (1 week).

The fact is, most substantive decisions are made by the Board of Trustees these days and Synod dances to the tune they play.  Where Synod does make a decision, it often seems as if they make its implementation optional.

I've never been a delegate to Synod.  The way it is presently constituted, I rather hope I never am.