10 myths about parliamentary procedure and Presbyterian meetings

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“A [person] with God is always in the majority.” These words by John Knox are reflective of how decision-making within the church is different than in other types of gatherings. As noted in the Book of Order: “Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ.” (F-3.0204)

While decisions within the church should be spiritual-based, the process for arriving at such decisions can be quite temporal. In the PC(USA), this happens through parliamentary procedure. The Book of Order provides that meetings of councils, including sessions, presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly, “shall be conducted in accordance with the most recent edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, except when it is in contradiction to this Constitution.” (G-3.0105) In addition, many churches have bylaws provisions or rules that meetings shall follow Robert’s Rules of Order.

From a legal perspective, if a church body is required to follow certain procedures, those procedures should be followed — or changed. Ignoring or incorrectly applying mandatory meeting procedures can lead to embarrassment, hard feelings and even lawsuits. But the benefits of a meeting run properly go far beyond legal concerns. Correct procedures can turn long, confrontational meetings into short, painless ones. As a result, Presbyterian leaders should make every effort to learn some essentials of parliamentary procedure.

One problem, however, is that what we think we know about parliamentary procedure often isn’t accurate. Listed below are ten common misnomers about parliamentary procedure.

Myth #1: Any version of Robert’s Rule’s will do

There are lots of books about Robert’s Rules of Order. However, most of these books are earlier editions or knock-offs. There is always one official Robert’s Rules. Each new edition brings changes to the procedure. The current edition is Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th Edition). For organizations following the most recent edition of Robert’s Rules, this is your book.

Myth #2: Rules are the same for all meetings

Rules aren’t one-size-fits-all. Problems commonly occur when large meetings behave too informally or small meetings behave too formally. Rules should be like clothes — they should fit the organization they are meant to serve.

Robert’s Rules provides that board meetings and membership meetings are conducted differently. Large meetings must be formal. However, formality can hinder business in smaller bodies. As a result, Robert’s Rules recommends less formal rules for committees and smaller boards (where there are not more than about a dozen members present) such as:

  • Members may raise a hand instead of standing when seeking to obtain the floor.
  • Members may remain seated while speaking or making motions.
  • Motions need no second.
  • Discussion of a subject is permitted while no motion is pending.
  • When a proposal is clear, a vote can be taken without a formal motion.
  • There is no limit to the number of times a member may speak to a subject or motion.
  • Occasions where debate must be limited or stopped should be rarer than in larger meetings.
  • The chair is typically a full participant and can debate and vote on all questions.
  • Votes are often taken by a show of hands.

Smaller boards that dislike this informality may wish to follow more formal procedures. Even informal boards may choose to be more formal on important or controversial matters.

Myth #3: Seconds always matter

In a larger or more formal body, a second to a motion implies that at least two members want to discuss the motion. If there is no second, there should be no further action on the proposal, so seconds have their place. However, after any debate on an issue, the lack of a second is irrelevant. For less formal smaller bodies or on motions coming from a committee, seconds aren’t even required.

Myth #4: Debate and a formal vote are required

Many noncontroversial matters can be resolved without debate through “general” or “unanimous” consent. For example, “Is there any objection to ending debate?” If no one objects, you’re done: “Debate is closed.” If a member objects, the matter is resolved with a motion and vote. Unanimous consent allows an assembly to move quickly through non-contested issues.

Myth #5: The maker of a motion gets to speak first and last

The maker of a motion has the right to speak first to a proposal. After speaking, the maker has no more rights to speak than other members. In fact, the maker cannot speak a second time unless everyone else who wishes to speak to the issue has had a chance.

Myth #6: “Majority” means half plus one

“Majority” means more than half. That could mean five votes in favor to one against. In a very large membership meeting, it could also mean 50.0001 percent in favor. The term does not mean 51% or “half plus one,” as using such calculations could cause a vote to be announced incorrectly. For example, in a vote of seven members, half is 3.5. A majority is four since you can’t have half a person. Any effort to use “half plus one” (3.5 + 1= 4.5) will take you down the wrong path!

Myth #7: “Old business”

“Old Business” is not a parliamentary term and suggests a revisiting of any old thing ever discussed. The correct term “Unfinished Business” makes clear the term refers to specific items carried over from the previous meeting. A presiding officer never needs to ask, “Is there any Unfinished Business?” but simply states the question on the first item (“There is one item of Unfinished Business. …”). Annual meetings generally have no Unfinished Business.

Myth #8: Yelling “Question!” stops debate

The motion to close debate is often handled wrong. Shouting “Call the Question” or “Question!” from the back of the room is not only bad form, but it’s also ineffective. The motion to close debate is like any other motion. A member wanting to close debate must be recognized by the chair. The motion to close debate requires a second and a two-thirds vote. Only the assembly decides when to end debate.

Myth #9: “Lay on the Table” motion kills sticky issues

The motion to “Lay on the Table” (often shortened to “Table”) is often misused to sweep difficult issues under the rug. Robert’s Rules provides that the motion is out of order if the intent is to kill or avoid dealing with a measure. Properly used, the motion temporarily delays a matter when some other urgent issue has arisen, such as an emergency or an important guest who is to speak. Once the urgent matter is over, the group can resume the tabled matter. Because the motion to Table is undebatable and only requires a majority vote, it should not be used to get rid of a matter.

Myth #10: The chair rules the meeting

The chair serves the assembly. Put another way, the chair can only get away with what the assembly allows. If the rules of the assembly are being violated, any member can raise a “Point of Order.” Once the chair rules on the Point of Order, a member can move to “Appeal” from the decision of the chair. If seconded, an Appeal takes the parliamentary question away from the chair and gives it to the assembly. The assembly is the ultimate decider of all procedural issues.

Conclusion

Eliminating these myths and following proper procedures can lead to shorter, fairer, and more effective meetings. As Presbyterians, we will also be abiding by the guidance of 1 Corinthians 14:40 that “all things be done decently and in order.”

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