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Ultimately within discussion and debate a person's goal is to get to the place where they can say of their challenger "we're talking the same language." Two parties may disagree ultimately, yet there can be grace in the midst of a conversation because people are wrestling within the same parameters.

I used to think this was a common hope among people who disagree, whether with my wife, my children, a coworker, or a church board. But especially when watching many church meetings I begin to doubt whether that is a common hope: that in discussing we would be speaking the same language.

I say this especially as I consider the years of Classis and Synod meetings I have attended or even chaired. You see, as stodgy as the rules of order seem (and those that know me understand I am not a rule follower), following Robert's Rules allows a church to have non-manipulative, open, low tension, thoughtful, and deliberative dialogue that leaves space for the Holy Spirit to speak a word to us if we are attuned.

Don't think so? How about a sampling of the rules and their benefit:

  • Delegates do not represent the viewpoints of others: Meetings that use Robert's Rules are meant for deliberative bodies—delegates do not come as representatives of a viewpoint of those "back in their home area". I put these together because they work together. When delegates come to a meeting wearing black arm bands or acting in solidarity around the view of a group of people outside of the body itself they shut down the intentions of true deliberation: openness to talk, to listen, and to consider without prior bias the content being presented and wrestled with at the meeting itself. This honours the desire of Christians to be supple enough that we might recognize God bending our heart and minds even in the course of a meeting.
  • Only address the chair: How many times have I seen individuals turn from the mic and swivel during the time they are making their points instead of only speaking to the chairperson! It begins to feel like a campaign or Sunday morning sermon and unfortunately the best orator wins. That is unfair. And it only provides encouragement for delegates to come to Synod with prepared content and skilled persuasion instead of with a humble spirit of listening to each other and to God...which is more suitable for a deliberative body.
  • No dominating the discussion: No member can speak twice to the same issue until everyone else wishing to speak has spoken to it once. Wow...imagine how pithy Synod or church council discussions could be if this rule was observed. Enough said.

In these and other rules we find the gracious behaviour of healthy conversation. An old and stodgy set of rules...perhaps. But useful? Yes. It is my hope that at our churches and our various ecclesiastical meetings we begin to speak the same language of civility and grace by paying attention to these kinds of rules.


Amen, Darren. Though I wonder sometimes (many times, these days) if those Robert's Rules need to be stretched a bit in new ways considering the multiplicity of backgrounds with which we are faced. I know, for example, that even among those of us who are used to Robert's Rules and the sort of euro-centric parliamentary procedure there are those who are just too shy to voice their opinions, feelings and concerns. Those same people invariably have, just as often as any of the rest of us, valuable things to say. Thus, sadly, their voices are often not heard. 

Also, for those who do not come from our cultural context, the "Robert's Rules" way of doing things can still seem very aggressive, and it can be the case that those who come from a background where "consensus building" is the name of the game feel unwelcome to share. And, my experience has been that, Robert's Rules or not, it is still often the case that a few dominant voices are heard repeatedly, while others are not heard at all. In fact, I know that I have, on many an occasion, been one of those who is "heard" a little too often!

What I have been experiencing in the past number of years that has been a refreshing light in the midst of our meetings has been a kind of blending of "Robert's Rules" with some of the methods of Restorative Practices. In this way of doing things, on many significant issues, the chair will, for a few moments, prayerfully "pause" the normal function of Robert's Rules and will solicit the views of the entire body one-at-a-time going around a circle. Also, the chair may pause the conversation for a time of prayer. The body itself may explicitly declare that there are certain additional rules of respectful, safe dialog, using reflective listening techniques and direct communication between members on a particular topic....

I very much hear and agree that, for the most part, Robert's Rules are a Godsend to us as a church! However, I think there are times and places where a different set of "rules and procedures" need to be put in place--both to encourage those who are more shy, and those who are of differing cultural backgrounds, and to provide the time for a more contemplative, less adversarial and more consensus building model for our deliberations.

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