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Time to rethink decision-making in the church?

Robert’s Rules vs. consensus

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Presbyterians are known for doing things decently and in order. That’s why at meetings, one can hear phrases being pulled from the parliamentary procedural playbook, Robert’s Rules of Order: “Do we have motion?” “I would like to amend the amendment.” “Point of order!”

For decades, Robert’s Rules of Order has been the go-to guide for Presbyterians to foster fair discussion and healthy debate before a vote is taken. But has the time come to think differently about group decision-making?

The Rev. Dr. Antonio (Tony) Aja of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, thinks so.

Aja says the PC(USA) “could become more amenable to using the consensus model,” which is used outside of the United States by organizations such as the World Council of Churches. The World Council of Churches began leading by consensus in 2006.

Did you know?

Robert’s Rules of Order is the predominant approach to meetings in the U.S. The rules lay out procedures for getting proposals raised, discussed, amended and voted on in meetings directed by a chairperson. Robert’s Rules are based on the belief that a majority can be counted on to make decisions that will work for the whole group, and that rules for orderly deliberation are the best guide to getting there.

Consensus explores a problem and diverse solutions more fully than Robert’s Rules. According to the World Council of Churches, “Consensus procedures allow more room for consultation, exploration, questioning and prayerful reflection, with less rigidity than formal voting procedures.”

Robert’s Rules is purely a U.S. invention,” Aja said. The rules were first published in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert, an Army officer who, after being asked to oversee a turbulent church meeting, decided that guidelines were needed for orderly discussion. He looked to parliamentary procedures for inspiration.

The problem Aja sees today, though, is that using the rules “might be forcing people of color in general, but specifically new immigrants, to forcibly assimilate into our system.”

“At same time, white Presbyterians lose an opportunity to learn new ways, given the demographic and cultural changes in our country,” he said.

Also, Aja noted, “Consensus is regularly exercised in our local session meetings, given the fact that many of our ruling elders — as well as some of us pastors — find it difficult to understand fully how Robert’s Rules work.”

Here, Presbyterians weigh in on today’s decision-making process in the church.

What Presbyterians are saying

From my experience, trying to stick to Robert’s Rules stretches out a meeting due to the unfamiliarity with the rules. The leaders are mostly new immigrants from various Asian countries where Robert’s Rules is not widely used. This unfamiliarity creates discomfort and makes leaders shy away from participating in discussion. This is ironic because one characteristic we share as diverse Asian Presbyterians is our tendency toward consensus. Having said that, Robert’s Rules are helpful to me in moving a meeting along, because it gives me tools to reach a decision and be clear how we got to that decision. We should keep Robert’s Rules, but also allow for consensus. With both models, though, leader training is needed. — Rev. Takako Terino, moderator of the National Asian Presbyterian Council

I’ve been working on a decision-making process for a few years that includes consensus working in collaboration with majority vote. Sometimes, Robert’s Rules majority vote includes consensus when debate is truly encouraged. However, it has been my experience that many decisions are based on the value system of the majority culture and not the value system of a faith culture. Therefore, no matter how many people of color, they are numerically outnumbered. — Rev. Thomas H. Priest Jr., president of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus

It is necessary to model a more inclusive discernment process, listening to what “the other” can add to the conversation, giving room for dissent and, thus, continue the conversation knowing that each voice is important and given value by the group. This would help to open spaces and begin a process to bridge the polarization existing both in society and our denomination. I think that it is urgent to implement real changes so that the new generation can “integrate” into our church, since they are already more diverse and accept diversity much more than the older generations. From my perspective, using the consensus model may be one of those changes.

Rev. Rosa Miranda, associate for Hispanic/Latino-a Intercultural Congregational Support and Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries

I’ve seen Robert’s Rules save the day more than once. I like it because it leaves personalities out of the mix. That’s the upside. The downside, I know, is that it can become weaponized, or it can be a “leg up” for those who know the rules against those who don’t. — Rev. Sallie Watson, general presbyter of Mission Presbytery, San Antonio, Texas

Robert’s Rules is often used as a way of privileging certain parties in the midst of group discussions. One of the potential challenges, though, of consensus is doing this on a larger scale, like a presbytery meeting, rather than in a smaller session setting. It seems that the more people who are a part of the process, the more challenging this approach gets. Consensus is absolutely how most of our sessions tend to function, and I would be interested in seeing how it might work at a larger level. I agree with the reservations about what a large-scale meeting using consensus might look like, but I’m certainly open to seeing how it might work, though. — Rev. Seth Finch, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico

We utilize a form of consensus during session and committee meetings. I do it particularly when a new idea is in the works. It is also much more efficient with items that really don’t require all the formality. And while I know Robert’s Rules pretty well, most folks don’t, so finding a path to discuss, discern and decide is usually welcomed. My clerk has learned that when I do a consensus kind of thing, he just puts unanimous consent in the minutes! But I have been thinking about the multicultural aspect of this. I have a congregation that has differing cultures — an African (Cameroon) American family, a couple of Native families and a family with Hispanic members. It has me thinking that I need to talk with them more about how the church in Africa, on the reservation, and in the places of origin worship and make decisions. I know as an Anglo woman I have a lot to learn, and hope colleagues will continue to call me to account as needed. — Rev. Kathryn Barlow Westmoreland, Rio Rancho Presbyterian Church, Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Robert’s Rules can sometimes wreak tyranny by vote. However, it is also sometimes difficult to get to consensus. Consensus can be cumbersome and compassionate. That makes loving, caring listening so very important. I believe hearing the dissenting and sometimes disagreeable voices is necessary to keep us aware we are not the only voice that needs to be heard. — Rev. Dr. Georgia Ortiz, honorably retired, Santa Fe Presbytery  

I moderated a think tank when I was a professor at the University of Oklahoma. We worked on the consensus model, but I began noticing how some voices stayed totally quiet while others dominated. Even as the moderator, I had trouble getting all the voices that participated due to the overbearing nature of some of the voices. So, I had to shift to a model that included more “rules” for engagement. I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Go for consensus as long as all voices are heard. But, to secure equality, employ Robert’s Rules, unless it is blatantly obvious that clear consensus has been reached. — Rev. Dr. Barbara Boyd, honorably retired, Santa Fe Presbytery

We are moving into consensus model decision-making. It is involving a complete reorganization of our structure, too. So far, we have failed to use a consensus model, but we will keep trying. The one time we achieved consensus process, it was good. — Rev. Lorelei Kay, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Gallup, New Mexico

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