Does Anyone Know Robert? Rules of Order in Church Members’ Meetings
During college, I was looking for one more class to complete the hours needed for a minor in speech when I came across this course called “Parliamentary Procedure.” It sounded boring, but easy, so I signed up. I had no idea what I was getting into. Parliamentary Procedure was the study of the rules used by large governing bodies such as Parliament, Congress, councils, and congregations in order to conduct business and make decisions. The instructor was the epitome of a stickler for details and this course was clearly in her lane. And while my hopes of blowing through this were quickly blown up, I learned a very critical lesson: whoever knows the rules of order controls the meeting.
HOW DO CONGREGATIONS MAKE DECISIONS?
Many of us are convinced that an elder-led, congregational-rule form of church governance is set forth in the New Testament. This means that the congregation is going to be involved at some level in the decisions of the church.
How exactly does that happen? No, seriously. How exactly does that happen? Can you make motions from the floor? Can you table a motion? Who has the authority to say when a motion is out of order? When can you cut off a discussion and vote? What you will discover is that whoever controls the rules of order controls the meeting. The person who controls the rules of order is the person who knows exactly what they are and how they work.
WHAT ARE RULES OF ORDER?
So, what are the rules of order? A popular code of conduct for governing meetings and facilitating decisions as a group is Robert’s Rules of Order. In fact, it’s rather common for churches to put a clause in their constitution that says that the members’ meetings will operate according to Robert’s Rules. Have you ever actually read them? Most people haven’t, which is precisely the problem because the person who knows the rules of order can control the meeting and that person may not be the moderator and may not have the best interest of the church in mind.
So, when you are forming or updating the documents for your church, make certain that the rules for your members’ meetings are clearly established in your constitution or in supporting documentation. Otherwise, your members’ meeting is vulnerable to being hijacked. When that happens, then the actual issue that’s being presented to the members is lost while arguments are made for the process.
SHOULD YOU USE ROBERT’S RULES OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Here is my brief suggestion: Robert’s Rules of Order are too cumbersome and clumsy to be useful in a church members’ meeting, and I would not encourage you to use them. But you should establish some rules of order and write them down. Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, for instance, uses a highly simplified form or Robert’s Rules they call “Bob’s Rules.” (Note: Bob’s Rules is an informal and simplified form of Robert’s rules. They are unfortunately not written down for our edification.)
Keep them as concise as possible. The more complicated they are, the more people who best understand them can exploit them to get their way. Simple rules are harder to exploit, and they allow everyone to feel like they know what’s going on.
Make them accessible to the congregation, but be absolutely certain that whoever moderates your meetings know them as well as anyone.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Why is this important?
Rules of order help to ensure that members’ meetings flow as smoothly as possible and are not derailed by arguments regarding procedure. As formal as they might feel, in a church of any size, they help to prevent fights, and facilitate unity.