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Following Robert’s Rules in a Culture of Consensus: Reflections on Mennonite Process as Displayed at Orlando

7.13. 2017 Written By: Gerald J. Mast 1,413 read

Gerald J. Mast is Professor of Communication at Bluffton (Ohio) University and author of Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling (Herald Press, 2012).

On the last day of the 2017 Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, the Delegate Assembly approved a resolution to accept the intensive work of the Future Church Summit (FCS) participants during the previous two days as a guide for further discernment about God’s calling for church agencies, constituency groups, conferences, and congregations in the years ahead. Toward the end of this final delegate session, the language about “further discernment” had been changed from the original resolution brought by the Resolutions Committee, stating the outcome of the summit as the “future direction” of the denominational body.

Before the vote to adopt the resolution was concluded, one delegate who had earlier argued for postponing the vote until the next convention raised a point of order to ask for further discussion before voting. When the moderator put the question of voting to the assembly, delegates voted to end discussion. At about the same time, a small group of people who had been in favor of the stronger language of direction used in the original resolution briefly interrupted the proceedings with a unison shout: “Don’t build a representative process and then undermine it!”

The concerns raised by these two interventions are confirmed in various church and social media threads I’ve been following in the aftermath of this decision. In these threads I’ve noticed that both those who wanted to postpone a decision for two years and those who wanted to approve the original resolution accepting the FCS outcomes as the “direction” of the denomination were frustrated by the way the revised resolution was managed.

This process frustration arose, in my view, because of the Mennonite habit of conflating “consensus” process with “parliamentary” process.

Consensus models of decision-making work to build relationships and reach agreement through discussion and collaborative policy development. Consensus models stress and utilize human capacity for patient cooperation in achieving creative group harmony. The Future Church Summit was perhaps the most sophisticated and technologically amplified version of consensus process ever practiced in a large Mennonite assembly.

By contrast, parliamentary models—exemplified in Robert’s Rules of Order—seek to empower a deliberative body’s majority to reach a decision while respecting the perspectives and rights of dissenters. Parliamentary models assume and clarify the timely exercise of power in making controversial democratic decisions. The delegate sessions in which we approved the Israel-Palestine resolution (passed earlier in the week) and the FCS resolution generally followed this parliamentary model.

It is sometimes assumed that consensus models are a more recent and progressive reform of parliamentary models. In fact, Henry Robert codified the parliamentary process found in Robert’s Rules of Order as a response to what he regarded as abuses of the desire for consensus—the tyranny of the minority. Although Robert regarded genuine unanimity as the best possible outcome of a group decision-making process, he recognized numerous dysfunctional habits that often arise in cultures of consensus: anxiety about controversy, fear of being labeled a process obstacle, and the passive acceptance of decisions that are unsatisfying to everyone and for which no one wants to take responsibility. Robert regarded an honest and clear decision of the majority to be preferable to a muddled and ambiguous agreement reached by everyone. This historical background can be found in more detail in the introduction to the 10th and 11th official editions of Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised.

In the context of Mennonite Church USA, our current process of denominational decision-making reflects both the desire to reach genuine consensus on the one hand and the reluctance to do the time-consuming work of achieving even a carefully processed majority decision on the other hand—the well-considered Israel-Palestine resolution notwithstanding.

A number of examples from the Delegate Assembly process at Orlando illustrate this tension.

To begin with, the MC USA delegate covenant that we affirmed at our tables states that we seek “consensus rather than make hasty decisions” and defines consensus as reached “when the Delegate body has come to a common mind on a matter, or when those who dissent have indicated a readiness to accept a group decision.”

But while we worked and discussed in the spirit of consensus building at our table groups during both the FCS and delegate sessions, the actual process we used to make decisions by the assembly as a whole was not and has never been genuine consensus. We ultimately voted, following the rough outlines of parliamentary procedure. We have never in a denominational Mennonite assembly, as far as I can remember, waited to reach a decision until those who dissent have indicated a readiness to accept a group decision.

It is thus confusing and even perverse when delegates are asked to affirm a consensus process in our delegate covenant that directly contradicts the parliamentary process outlined in “Procedural Rules for Delegates” that we are also provided in our “Delegate Job Description” as a guide for making decisions together. Those “procedural rules” explicitly defer to Robert’s Rules of Order as the authority for acceptable process when taking action on resolutions.

Moreover, the specific ways in which the FCS resolution was processed by the delegate body during the last session illustrates well the often-dissatisfying outcomes of mixing parliamentary practices with consensus culture.

For example, consider the maneuvering by the Resolutions Committee to address an apparent movement among delegates toward a more cautious wording of the resolution. This movement toward a more cautious wording no doubt seemed apparent to the Resolutions Committee after eight delegates made speeches urging retreat from the language of “direction” in the resolution. It is not, of course, surprising that those who were motivated to come forward and address the assembly had concerns about the resolution while those who were contented with the resolution as presented held their tongue, particularly in a context when the moderator was signaling anxiety about time limits.

In response to the feeling engendered by eight speeches in a row signaling the same concern, the Resolutions Committee adjusted the wording of the resolution they had originally brought with replacement language about receiving the FCS report for further discernment rather than as direction. Presumably because they were in a hurry and also wanted to achieve the approximate “consensus” of a strong majority, the Resolutions Committee offered the replacement language as a “friendly” amendment and the moderator skipped the normal process for adopting amendments—in which the delegate body discusses and votes on whether it wants to change the pending resolution before actually voting on the pending resolution. As a result of not following the process for adopting amendments outlined in Robert’s Rules, the adjustments in the resolution’s language were made without testing whether in fact a majority of delegates wanted to make the changes.

No doubt the Resolutions Committee felt as if they were working hard to listen to the assembly and work toward a consensus of preferable language. No doubt they perceived a significant movement in attitude and feeling toward “discernment” rather than “direction.” And by responding in a flexible and ad hoc way to dissent, the Committee can be understood to have extended the listening habits and collaborative spirit manifested fruitfully during the Future Church Summit.

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of such consensus-building flexibility rather than careful parliamentary procedure in this large assembly occurred when, at one point during the resolution rewriting process, a delegate at a table near me shouted her wish that the Resolutions Committee should include the phrase about “living into God’s calling” that the Committee had removed while rewriting the resolution, a suggestion confirmed loudly by a number of other delegates. Hearing this protest, the Resolutions Committee chair re-inserted this language into the emerging revised resolution on his PowerPoint slide, again, without following a proper amendment process.

Such collaborative responsiveness to expressed concern often works well in a small group or possibly a congregational setting. But in a large assembly, impulsive responses by those with parliamentary leadership power often end up obscuring an honest and clear process of determining what the assembly as a body wishes to do—whether in its majority or by consensus.

And what happened in Orlando is what frequently happens when assemblies abandon parliamentary process in order to respond in a “friendly” way to strong expressions of discontent: we ended up passing a new resolution without any debate or discussion and we voted on this new and untested resolution within minutes after the changes had been made.

In other words, we made a decision that had the benefit of neither true consensus nor a proper parliamentary process.

It’s possible that the majority of delegates preferred the replacement resolution to the original resolution but we will never know because we never gave the assembly the chance to decide whether it wanted to vote on the original resolution or not.

Parliamentary leadership could have easily allowed this decision by simply following correct parliamentary process in providing delegates with the opportunity to defeat the amendment before voting on the pending resolution.

My own experience of this moment was that as a delegate I listened to the concerns expressed by those who advocated for removing the language of “direction” from the FCS report. I thought that these were reasonable arguments and I voted for the replacement resolution, as did an overwhelming majority of delegates.

However, following the end of the meeting, I learned that members of the FCS theme team had pushed strongly for the language of direction in the original resolution, for reasons that seemed wise to me and that confirmed concerns raised by a member of my table group during the short time we were given to discuss the replacement resolution in our groups. I wish that I had had the opportunity to hear the arguments in favor of the stronger original language of direction before voting on the revised resolution—an opportunity that would likely have been afforded by even 5-10 minutes of public discussion of a proper motion to amend the pending resolution.

What can we learn from our process challenges in the Orlando Delegate Assembly and how might we work toward more careful and just process during future denominational assemblies?

1. We should be clear and honest with one another that our table group discussions seek to build the relationships and collaborative spirit associated with consensus process while our actual decision-making practices follow a parliamentary process designed to allow the majority of the delegates to express their will while respecting the rights and considering the perspectives of those who dissent from the majority position. This particular blend of consensus and parliamentary practices evolved in MC USA as an effort to combine the decision-making cultures of its two predecessor denominations. It also arguably expresses a persistent tension in Anabaptist faith cultures between the desire to remain in patient fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ on the one hand and the impulse to follow Christ in practical and specific ways that require urgent decisions on the other hand. The MC USA delegate covenant should be revised to reflect our actual practice of following consensus process for much of the discussion about the church’s business and then switching to a parliamentary process for decisions that need to be made.

2. When the time comes in our Delegate Assembly for public (as opposed to table group) discussion and voting, the parliamentary leadership—including the moderator, the parliamentarians, and the Resolutions Committee—should be unapologetic about following Robert’s Rules of Order, even when the decisions are not controversial. Robert’s Rules has been slandered for too long as a legalistic, arcane, and outdated method of decision-making. It is actually a remarkably fair and just way to determine the will of the majority while giving dissenting voices ample opportunity to express objections, propose alternatives and influence the outcome. Paradoxically, we can best extend the collaborative and inclusive spirit of consensus-building discussions to the decision-making work ordered by Robert’s Rules when we acknowledge and embrace the shift from informal discussion time to rule-governed decision time.

3. The assembly leadership should anticipate possible amendments to any significant resolution and build in time for at least 5-10 minutes of public (not just table group) discussion of possible amendments. Rushed deliberative processes usually end up confusing people and leading to disowned outcomes.

4. Church schools, colleges and seminaries should partner with congregations, conferences and denominational agencies to provide opportunities for church leaders to learn both consensus and parliamentary process methods, along with advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. Delegates to conference and denominational assemblies might receive training in parliamentary and consensus practices as part of the preparation for being an effective delegate. I can imagine the denomination providing webinars in parliamentary and consensus process in the months leading up to a convention. Parliamentary process is most effective at expressing the actual will of an assembly when all participants are familiar with the assembly’s basic rules and vocabulary of decision-making and know how to express their opinions.

5. We should regard careful and clear decision-making processes as a matter of Christian discipleship and justice seeking. When we approach the application of either a consensus or parliamentary procedure as a matter of Christian ethics, we will highlight what both methods share in common: seeking a collective decision that reflects the wisdom of a majority of the gathered body while acknowledging the perspectives of those who disagree, either by giving dissenters an opportunity to yield to the majority (consensus) or by accepting a vote of the majority while recording the number and opinions of those opposed (parliamentary procedure). We should also acknowledge the spiritual dimension of collective decision-making by praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and by attending to the Spirit’s presence in our assemblies. Whatever happened to the “worshipful work” practices that had been common in Mennonite assemblies a few years ago?

6. We might as well recognize that Anabaptist cultures have been historically and theologically invested in the locally gathered community as the privileged context of decision and action for the mission of God in the world. As such, the informally realized emerging consensus of the small discipleship group or local congregation is prized as the most reliable spiritual and practical knowledge we offer and receive in the church. This preference for local discernment is quite valid. But when we yearn for large assemblies like a denominational delegate body to function in this same informal and emergent manner, this desire often makes us blind to the power dynamics inherent to informal and process-ignoring habits of decision wittingly or unwittingly practiced in such assemblies.

In my view, Anabaptist communities are thus well-served by a modest agenda of conference and denominational decisions that are given adequate time for both local and global processing—as was the Israel-Palestine resolution—and that follow careful process rules accessible to all participants. We would then expect that the most creative and robust responses to the bridge-building, wall-destroying and love-making work of the Holy Spirit would be found in local Christian communities that are unable to contain the amazing grace of God’s reconciling love in any particular decision-making process, be it consensus or parliamentary.

Did you attend the Future Church Summit? Do you have a reflection to share? E-mail us your thoughts about this gathering: Editor@TheMennonite.org

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