Breaking the Rules

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>Sometimes rules are meant to be broken. Sorry to sound cliche, but in this case I believe rules are at least meant to be reevaluated, changed, or reconsidered. With the coming of June, my thoughts have drifted toward the annual gathering of United Methodists in the eastern half of North Carolina. This year we will gather for the first time in Greenville, NC. Though the venue has changed, the procedure has not. We will begin with a laity session that coincides with a clergy session. We will proceed to an opening communion service. Sometime shortly there after, our first order of business will be the approval of conference rules.

“Robert’s Rules” were what we used to call them. They have been revised over the years, but the basic format for ordering a meeting remains. Our bishop will “chair” the conference, accompanied by a “parliamentarian” who will help him with parliamentary procedure throughout the three day gathering. Hats off to Major Henry M. Robert. His post Civil War efforts to bring order to disorder was no doubt an improvement then as it often is today. His methodology, based largely on the rules of the US Congress and it British parliamentary roots, have served the cause of efficiency and democratic process well. They have given all sorts of clubs, businesses, social organizations, and churches a common language and common procedure, keeping such human gatherings from what threatens to be an inevitable quagmire of stagnation, division, and chaos. The question is, should we share that language?

Please understand that my reflection here may prove unsatisfactory for many people, primarily because I have more questions than answers – but part of me is wondering why we quit asking some of these questions when we gather as the people called Methodists. Why do we assume these rules are the most faithful way for the Body of Christ to proceed with when we gather in the name of Jesus and pray for the mutual discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Why are we guided by rules that assume division rather than unity? In a fast-food, microwave, give-it-to-me-yesterday world, has the need for efficiency trumped the cultivation of fruit of the Spirit like patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control? Can genuine Christian conversation take place with 2 to 3 minute sound bites from either side of the aisle? Is democracy, or the rule of the majority, really legitimate among a people that claim allegiance to a theological monarchy where there is one Lord and one King?

Several years ago, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I attended a conference where there seemed to be a growing censuses on the floor regarding a rather controversial subject. People were flocking to the floor microphones expressing their support for a particular motion. One after the other, support came flooding in. The presiding bishop was somewhat flustered and asked if there were any of dissenting opinion on the floor, and if so they should head to the microphone quickly. No one voiced any dissent or came to a mic. The conference was told that there needed to be one speech for and one against, and the alternating sequence needed to be followed for there to be fairness in the procedure. It was an incredible teaching moment for me – as if the Church had lost the capacity to comprehend or receive consensus and unity, even when it seemed to be smacking us on the side of the head.

Now I am sure that true parliamentarians can quickly point out this example as a misuse or misunderstanding of the rules, and I do not doubt it for a moment. I am aware that meetings could likely be improved by a more thorough understanding and implementation of Roberts Rules. I am also not faulting the bishop for the way he presided. My point is that the rules themselves and the language that accompanies them have shaped us in certain ways that ought to be questioned.

Regular conference attendees will also be familiar with another example that is far more common. The use of the rules by a minority (usually one or two people) who know them up, down, around, and sideways, and use such knowledge to circumvent discussion when it does not particularly suit their tastes. Again, I am aware that the use of the rules in this way is not true to the spirit of their intent. Robert himself cautioned against such abuses:

one who is constantly raising points of order and insisting upon a strict observance of every rule in a peaceable assembly (sic) in which most of the members are….[unfamiliar with] these rules and customs, makes himself a nuisance, hinders business, and prejudices people against parliamentary law. Such a person….either….[does not understand] its real purpose or else willfully misuses his knowledge.

Knowledge of the “real purpose” of the rules could likely improve annual conference gatherings, but I still wonder if the “means” (how we structure our meetings) and the desired “ends” are more closely related then we tend to think. Over time, we have grown so accustomed to this way of handling our diversity that it often feels like time spent on strategy, political posturing, and rule wrangling has replaced patience, listening, and charity. When we gather, we have been shaped in ways that lead us to care more about a person’s “yes” or “no” on an issue then the more important theological rationale and spiritual discernment that lead them to hold that conviction. Too often we come to conference, not to hear the Spirit speaking through Christian community (as messy and time consuming as that can be), but to move quickly past the uncomfortable differences we have in an expeditious manner. For that, the rules are very effective. Does that necessarily make them faithful?

PS: Many churches and businesses have started using other methods for guiding meetings. Click here for a comparison between three approaches: Roberts Rules, Consensus Process, and Dynamic Facilitation.

Related Links:
Consensus: “A better way of reflecting the nature of the church”


  1. >I sincerely appreciate Kevin’s humility in approaching the subject of order in annual conference discussions. No one on the annual conference staff is wedded to Robert’s Rules; it certainly does not have the authority of Scripture or even of the Discipline. However, among parliamentarians there is an old adage that says, “Using Robert’s Rules with a group of less that two dozen, or failing to use it with a group of more than two dozen, are equally foolish.” There is nothing sacrosanct about Robert’s Rules, but the other two approaches Kevin presents will work only when 1) the group is small; 2)the time is limitless; and 3) there is relatively little at stake. At annual conference there are enormous constraints of time; the group is huge; and (at least it seems) that a great deal is at stake. We argue the resolutions, for example, as though the sun will not rise unless our side prevails. The more participants have at stake, the more they will be inclined to cry “foul” at any perceived injustice. Robert’s Rules, and the AC Rules, may be inflexible and authoritarian, but at least they are generally accepted as authoritative. Unless the structure of AC is radically revised (a cure that may be worse than the disease), then Robert’s Rules may be the best we can do. Still, Kevin, is to be commended for looking for alternatives.

  2. >Chuck,Thanks for the feedback – and you are right about the time, views, and size of annual conference. One thing that I do know other conferences do is have a few break-out groups that do some discussion together. Not sure of the logistics, but that might have possibilities. Another that I heard about from British Methodism is to limit the topics each year (keeping them in order so that eventually you make it around to the others) and have a few short position papers presented where people are invited to think more deeply and theologically about some of the issues (again, don’t know much about the logistics, but in both cases these things were done in very large groups).Peace,Kevin

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