What’s wrong with the way we make church decisions? Part 2

The theme of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference, “Therefore, Go!” now sounds more like a relief than a passionate call to mission.

This General Conference saw the worst behavior yet from delegates and observers and massive agenda gridlock. Further, it failed to provide a credible Christian witness to the world as to how United Methodists can work together and make decisions in a healthy and constructive way.


It’s complicated, but one thing is for certain. On Thursday (Day 3) the delegates were still debating the Rules of the Conference, which give order to the proceedings. It should have been a brief walk in the park. It wasn’t and the casualty was a proposed alternative community-based way of making decisions.

What followed was a disaster:

  • 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 yet with delaying tactics like making 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

It did not have to be this way. This is not the legacy our church should leave in an increasingly cold, uncivil world. We should have been able to do better. No, we had the chance to be better.

In Portland, I was told that General Conference cost millions of dollars to hold. One delegate calculated it cost $173,000/hour. Did we get our money’s worth? Did the people in the pews back home get a good return on their investment in us?

Our observation at General Conference was that Robert’s Rules of Order created chaos and confusion in the church — not 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: Look out! I learned that there are people who know how to manipulate the process, sow misinformation that cannot be challenged, and even squash conversation.

This is what happened in Portland with the Rule 44 decision. At one point, a delegate addressed the Presiding Bishop as “Your Honor”, and another begged for the group to stop a moment. She said: “I believe even God is confused right now; can we just stop and pray?”

So, what was so horrible about Rule 44 that it was the target of a hundreds of thousands of dollars smear campaign from a lobbying group? Basically, it gave every delegate a voice in the process. Really? Really!!!

Rule 44 would have allowed delegates to use a process other than Robert’s Rules of Order to discuss an important issue. It would have given the delegates the responsibility to choose the topic under consideration and then:

  • Convene small groups for prayer, conversation and discernment 
  • Hear a report of their deliberations and seek the creative movement of the spirit of the Holy
  • Decide the matter with traditional vote taking.

Simple. The actual process takes less time than it took to defeat it.

From my viewpoint, the delegates killed Rule 44 out of fear:

  • of not trusting their leaders or one another 
  • of not feeling ready to try something new 
  • of losing power and position, and 
  • of what God can do when people come together to humbly seek God’s will

The biggest absence in the many conversations, strategy sessions and lobbyist talking points was talk of God’s awesome power and grace. We witnessed a train wreck.

More importantly: Did we miss the mark? Did we fail to be an obedient church? A house divided cannot stand — the United Methodist Church is not too big too fail. There is a better way but it will take courage to dig deep to our roots and reach out to one another and the world faithfully.

We are calling on the United Methodist Church to use another process to make decisions. Not Robert’s Rules which was designed for government, but an approach designed for Christians. To this end we are writing a book on community-based decision making and invite you to use it in your church, Annual Conference and yes, (some day) even the General Conference.

This new resource explains the process and how to use it successfully. It can be tailored to fit any size group and address any topic fully. It has a leader’s guide, creative community activities, and worksheets. It is designed to:

1. Help your group identify the Christian values your community seeks to live out of and do so with integrity 

2. Deal with conflict and resistance to change so discussions can be redemptive and transforming instead of paralyzing 

3. Provide simple steps (supported with the Means of Grace) to guide deliberations and decide issues in your context:

a. Prepare the work ahead —  train leaders, form ‘Circles of Grace’, etc.

b. Invite people to participate — name the issue, and provide information

c. Make the Decision in Community

d. Implement and Evaluate your decision

Isn’t it time that we talk ‘to’ each other rather than ‘at’ each other?

If you believe it is time to have an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order to make church decisions, let us know. Leave a post with your comments. We are very interested in your hopes and experience!

What's wrong with the way we make church decisions (Part 1)

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