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Finding my vote on session

Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

I have been voting in every presidential and state election since I was 18. But 2020 was the year God taught me to become a voting member of my church’s session. Like so many pastors, I was taught that the moderator does not vote. Operating under Robert’s Rules of Order, in actuality, “if the [moderator] is a member of the voting body, he or she has the same rights and privileges as all other members have, including the right to make motions, to speak in a debate, and to vote on all questions. So, in meetings of a small board (where there are not more than about a dozen board members present), and in meetings of a committee, the presiding officer may exercise these rights and privileges as fully as any other member” (emphasis mine). The rule most of us adhere to, that the moderator refrains from voting unless to break a tie (and if ballots are used), is encouraged in a large assembly meeting.

Prior to 2020, I had never voted in a session meeting as moderator. There were a few times I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to speak and vote, but I always held back because I thought I was following the rules. Late in 2020, the pandemic was still upon us. And churches were struggling to make decisions that kept the faith alive and kept people safe. Very few pastors had a working knowledge of contagious diseases or epidemiology (certainly not me — I just had to use spell check to get that in there correctly). Church sessions were doing their best to make faithful decisions for their congregations.

I am very grateful that our presbytery, Presbytery of the Highlands (previously known as Newton Presbytery) tried to give pastors a chance to keep themselves safe, encouraging sessions to require a majority decision, including the pastor’s vote when making decisions with regard to building activities. It certainly seemed ridiculous that pastors wouldn’t get a vote when the decision to worship in-person, with/without masks, inside/outside, etc. could have direct impacts on the pastors’ health. And, at least in our session discussions, the caveat of worshipers simply choosing to stay home and worship online was not a viable option for the worship leaders. I first began casting my vote under this new guideline from my presbytery. And yet, it seemed a bit un-Presbyterian to essentially allow anyone veto-power, especially in just this one instance. So, I began to do some more research on the moderator’s voting privileges.

I remembered back to my days as moderator of Blackhawk Presbytery during the controversial marriage amendment in 2015 involving gay marriage. I recalled the challenge of remaining impartial and keeping the peace as presbytery members (often angrily) spoke into microphones. There were many times we had to mute the audience microphone in order to enforce the time constraints and allow other members to speak. I recalled watching the majority of my church clearly vote one way and feeling the Holy Spirit calling me to a different vote. But when the ballots were passed, I was not included.

In chatting with other trusted Presbyterian pastors, many have told me they’ve been voting from the beginning. One even told me that they often vote first just to set the tone. To be clear, I always had my voice in session meetings. I did my best to point to God and Scripture to lead us to faithful decision-making. But I had never considered being a part of that decision-making through voting. It appears that my session and I did not have a full understanding of the voting rules, and I believe we are not alone in our confusion.

While I still sometimes feel like a fish out of water, I have continued to vote with some minor exceptions since 2020. I am now convinced that my leadership includes my vote too. It took a pandemic and session voting on decisions that directly affected me to get there (this gives me pause in reflecting on how LGBTQIA+ siblings must have felt during the marriage amendment vote), but I wholeheartedly believe that the priesthood of believers is fulfilled when we are all working together towards a common goal. While frustrating during the pandemic, I am part of a denomination that values lay leadership as much, if not more, as pastoral leadership. And to withhold my vote is to miss out on being part of the change and bringing about the kingdom of God. I am not grateful for the pandemic, but I am grateful for finding my vote within it.