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General Assembly: More Than Debate?

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By Carol M. McDonald

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has begun in Detroit, MI.  Thousands of people are gathered here to worship, celebrate, converse, listen, discern, and debate.  And when the crowds disperse on Saturday, June 21, many of us will remember fondly reconnecting with old friends, acquiring new friends, amazing singing, and the power of gathering daily at the communion table.  But I daresay ALL of us will remember how the approximately 700 commissioners and advisory delegates debated the issues and discerned God’s will for our church for ‘such a time as this.’

It has been my profound privilege to moderate, since 2010, the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies.  From the beginning of our work together, our dream has been for ‘a different kind of Assembly.’  We have encouraged the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to structure the Assembly docket to include intentional times of conversation and prayer.  And we are particularly excited about the possibilities for a new kind of plenary session in 2014.

On Thursday morning, June 19, the plenary meeting of the Assembly will be a time for conversation and discernment, rather than a time for debate.  The Moderator of the Assembly, in partnership with the Stated Clerk, will select two critical/key/potentially contentious issues being brought to the plenary from two of the Assembly Standing Committees.  Each committee Moderator will make a 5 minute presentation to the Assembly – being clear about what it is the Assembly will be asked to vote on.  Following each presentation, groups of 8 will be invited to be in conversation: a.) What did you hear that might lead someone to support the committee’s recommendation(s)? b.) what did you hear that might keep someone from supporting the committee’s recommendation(s)?  Following the small group conversations, the Assembly Moderator will ascertain that what the Assembly will be asked to vote on is clear and will then lead the Assembly in prayer.

The hope of the Biennial Review Committee is that this non-parliamentary plenary with informal discussion of key issues will hopefully change the way critical and contentious issues are then debated and decided upon.(1)  It is our prayer that all commissioners and advisory delegates, during this time of conversation, will have both the opportunity to speak and the privilege of being heard.  You will want to be in the Plenary Hall – or glued to your computer screen for live-streaming – on Thursday morning, June 19.  Tune in to learn which issues will be discussed in a new and different way.

(1)Glen Alberto Guenther, member of CRBA, in Presbyterians Today, “Can General Assembly Offer More Than Debate?”

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Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.07.56 AMCarol M. McDonald is the Executive of the Synod of Lincoln Trails and Moderator of the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies. She is on the advisory team of NEXT Church.

 

Confessions of a GA Junkie

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Now that’s trust!

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

By Leslianne Braunstein

In 2001 I took San Francisco Seminary’s GA Polity course and received an in-depth introduction into the history and workings of this august body. I was hooked. I’ve been to every General Assembly since. I am a certified GA Junkie. I’ve got the pin to prove it.

After years of drifting among the committees, I now pick a committee and follow its proceedings through open hearings, advocacy statements  and deliberations – right through its report to the Assembly during plenary.

What I love about General Assembly is the Spirit working in and through the commissioners. This is most evident in committee deliberations.  I have followed the committee workings of both the Polity and Peacemaking committees during times of great contention. As the commissioners entered the room I could see on their faces they had already made up their minds on issues of great importance to the church. Over the course of three days as they listened to testimony and discussed the issues among themselves, as they prayed and genuinely sought God’s face in their deliberations, I could actually see those firm convictions yielding to the leading of the Spirit. It was an amazing experience to witness.

Committee deliberations have taken many turns in the last few years. The efforts to build consensus on issues of substantial contention seem to run into obstacles and roadblocks at every turn. With good leadership, though, committees that worked primarily as “a committee of the whole” seemed to be able to build a deeper trust among their members than committees strictly relying on Roberts Rules. Roberts Rules, while a useful tool, simply does not engender mutual confidence among committee members. Being able to look in the eye your brother or sister in Christ and express your deepest hopes and fears seems to be the only way consensus can be reached.

Of course, letting committee members actually talk to one another during deliberations is messy and requires great listening skills from leadership. It takes great wisdom to know how to corral the energy in the room and bring it to a place of peace and understanding. In the end, in order to make the report, though, there must be a return to Robert’s Rules so that motions can be made and seconded and voted upon. I believe, though, the deliberative process is better served by other means.

Four years ago I monitored the Peacemaking Committee that, once again, deliberated whether or not the PC(USA) should divest from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. At the first open deliberation it was clear who was going to vote which way. However, during the next three days, as the commissioners listened to testimonies and the advice of Gen. Assembly agencies, and as they discussed what they heard in small groups and as a committee of the whole, you could feel the air change. In the end, the committee – one I believed was split in half – came to an overwhelming consensus on the direction the church should take in these matters. Of the almost 50 commissioners, only four felt strongly enough to want to file a minority report. Even with that, the next day when the committee met, the leader of that group stood and tearfully acknowledged that while they had reservations about the outcome the committee was recommending, they would not file a minority report “for the good of the church.” It was, he said, the Spirit’s leading; the report should stand on its own. I saw no visible victory behaviors – no high-fives or thumbs-up.  What I heard were heartfelt acknowledgements of the difficulty of their decision and prayer. Lots of prayer.

I think this result was only possible because the leadership of this committee was committed to building trust. I suspect she did a lot of this during the closed sessions; and, when the atmosphere grew tense, she found ways to incorporate trust building opportunities into the discussions as they proceeded.

I have no idea how this would work in plenary. While individual committees work to build trust among their members, it is clear when the reports get to the floor of the Assembly, the trust does not extend to other committees. It is clear that we do not trust one another. While the Spirit may work in my life, we are not too sure about what She is doing in yours.

As I write this, I wonder if our predicament isn’t that we don’t trust one another; rather, we really question whether God is able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

It’s a dilemma, for sure.

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LB PhotoLeslianne Adkins Braunstein is an Interim Ministry Specialist in the PCUSA (National Capital Presbytery), a biblical storyteller and passionate GA Junkie. She was raised in New York City in what is the equivalent of the Southern Baptist Church. Leslianne joined Hollywood Presbyterian Church in 1991 and she immediately fell in love with the connectional nature of the Presbyterian church (U.S.A.) – in all its beautiful organized messiness. Leslianne was a law office administrator before her call to ordained ministry which might explain her affinity to decent orderliness.

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“table” photo credit: Joi via photopin cc

Wherefore Robert’s Rules of Order?

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

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By Michael D. Kirby

Roberts Rules are best you know, for the Bible tells us so.

Thankfully those are NOT the words to a Presbyterian verse of “Jesus Loves Me,” but sometimes one might wonder. As Presbyterians of every stripe prepare to gather in Detroit this week for the 221st General Assembly, many are having to pull out, or download, their latest version of Robert’s Rules of Order, the ancient, yet-oft-revised (11th Edition) bible of parliamentary procedure not just for the PC(USA), but also for thousands of other organizations, from the the Evangelical Lutheran Church to the local Eastern Star chapter to Toastmasters to many chambers of commerce.

The purpose of Robert’s Rules is very simple. It’s right there in the definition on the first page of most of the recent edition: “a set of rules for conduct at meetings, that allows everyone to be heard and to make decisions without confusion.” Many religious organizations adopt Roberts Rules because we heed the Biblical instruction that Paul gives to the early church at Corinth,“let all things be done decently, and in order.” 1 Corinthians 14:40. (Yes, it’s Biblical!)

For many, Roberts Rules, and indeed any rules of Parliamentary procedure, are seen as obstacles to the movement of the Spirit because they impose a seemingly burdensome structure on the actions of a body. The goal of the Rules is not burdensomeness, but exactly the opposite, to allow for work to be done efficiently yet fairly, and to help prevent business meetings with a multitude of opinions from devolving into chaos.

At their core, Robert’s Rules are designed to even the playing field in the work of organizations, large or small, by creating a set of ground rules for how business is to be conducted, namely by motion (a proposal is presented by a person or committee), perfection (the body makes changes that the majority believes will make the motion more effective/efficient), debate (proponents and opponents express their views and suggest a desired outcome) and vote.

The beauty of this system is that, ideally, anyone with voice who so desires can speak, (subject to restrictions on available time and relevance); any participant can bring motions, or seek to modify existing motions (subject to various agreed rules regarding timing, relevance and other procedural safeguards); any participant gets the same vote as any other (subject to rules about advisory voters). The system is designed, ideally, to prevent anyone from being silenced and to protect against the use of process to prevent fair consideration of the matters before the body.

Ironically, therein lies one of the great problems that many have had with Roberts Rules over the years. Ask anyone who has been a General Assembly commissioner or anyone who has been a parliamentarian in any organization and they will be able to recall a time when they felt someone was trying to use “loopholes” or their superior knowledge of the rules to subvert debate or prevent certain items from coming up for a vote on merits. In other words, the main problem that many people have with Robert’s Rules is we don’t trust people are using the rules fairly or that leaders are fairly interpreting and applying those rules.

The bad news is that Roberts can’t create trust where it doesn’t exist. The good news is that Roberts anticipates situations where trust is threadbare, and seeks through transparency, minimal structure and discretion given to moderators and parliamentarians, to craft a framework that can serve, like a walking cast on a broken foot, to allow the system to function, and through the work that is accomplished to provide space for trust to be renewed and to grow.

We must always remember that Roberts is a tool, and just a tool, not holy writ. Like any tool, knowledge as to its use is essential to effectiveness AND to group cohesion. Like a car, a power drill, or an axe, Roberts is a tool that can cause more than a little damage if misused or used without adequate knowledge or experience. Those conducting business need to know the basics of how it works, both to trust its use and understand what is happening or how to make something happen. The Roberts folks have made those basics available for you online. If you will be following the work of the Assembly or any committee in person or online, you will want to make a quick review of those basics.

In his book “Great Boards for Small Groups,” Andy Robinson suggests that in smaller groups, where trust is strong, the “consensus model” for decision-making is less stressful and more effective. The structure he proposes (1. Idea, 2. Discussion, 3. Modification, 4. Discernment if consensus is developing, and 5. Respond to dissenters with further discussion and modification until unanimity is achieved) is essentially a restatement of the steps used in Roberts, with discussion preceding “perfection.” The key difference is the headless character of the model, where there is no formal structure and no single decision-making moderator.

As we move forward as a connectional people, only we can decide if the groups we are a part of can live in the freedom of the consensus model. In the meantime, Roberts can be an effective tool to maintain order, foster trust and get difficult things done “decently and in order.”

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299535_10150311824339581_958859489_nMichael D. Kirby is a teaching elder and serves as pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He will be attending the 221st General Assembly as an overture advocate from the Presbytery of Chicago.

Connect with NEXT at GA

NEXT at GA final copy

Tuesday, June 17th, 8:30pm

at the bar/lounge of the Marriott Renaissance

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The Precarious Balance of Organized Religion

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection.  Read more

NEXT at GA

On July 1, members of the NEXT Church leadership teams (strategy and advisory) hosted a gathering at the 220th General Assembly. Teaching Elder Cindy Kohlmann attended that gathering and offers this report:

Here in Pittsburgh, the question underneath all the deliberations, conversations, and discussions is “what’s next for the PCUSA?”  What will happen in the next few months?  What will the denomination look like when we gather for the 221st General Assembly?  What’s next?

Of course, we can ask these questions out of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty, or we can ask these questions out of a sense of the deep abiding love of our Creating God, the faithfulness of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the transformative breath of the Holy Spirit.  How we ask the questions will say a lot about the answers we hear and discover.

The NEXT Church is seeking to ask, “what’s next?” out of a position of faith in a God who is not through with us or the Body of Christ yet.  This group wants to join faithful Christians in a journey of discovering what God is calling us to do, and what God is already doing that we are being invited into.  They’re asking the question, “what’s next?” with a joy and excitement that is welcome in the midst of these uncertain times.

Gathering with others in the chapel of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh on Sunday, July 1, we had an opportunity to engage in conversations about where we see God at work in our ministry contexts and where we are feeling called to enter into new ministry.  The NEXT Church PCUSA operates with the reformed understanding that God has supplied everything we need in order to do what we are being called to do within the Body of Christ.  Sharing our resources, our discoveries, our abilities, and our stories is a way to equip all the saints.

Reflecting on this offer to come together with others sharing in this journey of ministry gives me hope, even as the General Assembly stands divided on so many issues.  The deep need to reach out to our neighbors, many of whom have no notion of the grace and love of Christ, can be a tie that binds, especially in such a time as this.  Regionally and nationally, we can ask “what’s next?” in faith and with hope together.


Cindy Kohlmann is a Presbyterian teaching elder currently serving in two positions.  She pastors a small multicultural church in Clinton, MA, where she has been welcomed into the local Cameroonian community, while also serving as the Resource Presbyter for the Presbytery of Northern New England.  Her husband, Eric, is also a Presbyterian pastor, and together they share this amazing journey of ministry.