Robert's Rules is not Holy Conferencing

June 16th, 2017

Most every year the annual gathering United Methodists in Virginia will begin with someone from the floor offering a motion to remove the American flag from the venue — we typically meet in municipal coliseums. The flag, the thinking goes to which I'm sympathetic, is an idol in a context of worship where we've pledged allegiance alone to Jesus the King.

What none of us gathered there ever seem to notice is how there's another dynamic at work even more subversive to the gospel and nefarious to the character of our community: Roberts Rules of Order.

I'm not sure exactly when the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches accepted giving away the spiritual practices of discernment, reconciliation, and consensus-building to Robert's Rules of Order. I do know, for example, that St. Luke does NOT tell us this in his Pentecost reporting:

"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, the prayers and Robert's Rules of Order. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

And I know, whenever we went all-in for this unChristian practice, it was likely sometime in the 20th century. Robert's Rules of Order was first written in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert, an engineering officer in the regular Army. 

In other words, the Methodist Church adopted a secular means of deliberation in the industrial age at the same time the Methodist Church was adopting bureaucratic denominational and congregational structures that intentionally mirrored the corporate practices of the time, which produced, as my friend and mentor Dennis Perry says, “a conflation of effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked, most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”

Our adoption of RRoO coincided with our idolization of machines and factories. As a result, Dennis Perry argues, we seek a mass produced, top-down (what we call ‘connectionalism’) one-size-fits-all Christianity rather than a mentored, hand-crafted one; mass produced by a machine-like-culture where there is an artificial separation of management and labor, brain and brawn, producing a denomination that treats its laborers as unskilled and needing supervision: “We trust statewide and national organizations more than local leadership. We believe and act as if the larger organization is the real church while the local church exists for the greater church's good.”

The impulse that gave us RRoO begat these structures and dynamics as well, structures we've largely left unchanged even as best practices in business have since evolved, flattened, and streamlined. In an era where Amazon doesn’t even show me the same products it shows you, RRoO is but one of the ways we’re still trying to be Sears. 

I know from my pastoral experience that raising generations of Christians on Robert's Rules of Orders has produced members of an institution, not a movement. RRoO has produced leaders who think discipleship is about raising their hand yay or nay at a meeting. This is a devaluing of discipleship, which in turn disempowers pastors into chaplains whose role is chiefly to pray at those meetings. 

This is seen at our General Conference level where our bishops do not actually have the authority to lead our Church; they're given only the authority to preside over parliamentary procedure. Which gets to the real problem with Robert's Rules of Order: as any one who follows Congress knows, it's an inherently coercive, oppositional process for an ecclesial setting.

In this, Robert's Rules of Order is but an antiquated form of the binaries lobbed on Twitter. When a challenging issue hits the floor, for instance, responses are generally limited to three for the proposal and three against, and each response also has a time limit. Not to mention the amendments, sub-amendments, calls to table, etc. which follow. The more controversial motions passed then get litigated at our Judicial Council, Methodism's version of the Supreme Court (another troubling, not-very-Gospely attribute of how we've agreed to arrange our lives).

Robert's Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing. 

The very nature of pro/con debate and parliamentary maneuvering is not dialogue and leaves the body more polarized. 

As my e-friend Christy Thomas says: "Robert's Rules of Order is not the way to bring renewal to the church or bring the good news of Jesus, the one who sets us free and brings us redemption, to the world. [Christian] Dialogue is very, very different from parliamentary discussion.

"Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you. My peace Robert's Rules of Order I give you.’"

Every year the irony of United Methodists conferencing and worshipping in coliseums seems lost on us. Where the first Christians once accepted martyrdom in coliseums rather than betray their loyalty to the Caesar called Jesus, today Christians' preferred discourse too often resembles Caesar asking the crowd for a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

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