What outcomes do we expect from General Conference? Among the main, we look for denominational initiatives and priorities, revisions to the Book of Discipline and the Book of Resolutions, and elections of Judicial Council and University Senate, among other denominational governance bodies. We get updates on significant work of the church, and we celebrate the things we do right and well. At least, that is what we have been elected to do. In good faith, individuals, groups, conferences, boards, agencies, and a few interesting hybrids have drafted legislation, resolutions, petitions and wishful thinking, submitted it for consideration, and they await the actions of General Conference on this work. We dishonor the people who elected us whom we represent and serve when we fail to act on their submissions. And we are in danger of doing just this. Our wrangling, debating, points of order, referring, second guessing and obfuscating make getting our work done almost impossible. Some would say this is our work. I believe they are missing the point.
Take Robert’s Rules of Order. What are they, really? They are a guiding set of principles for one form of Parliamentary Procedure that are intended to help people who aren’t necessarily adept at large group decision-making do so with grace and style. This is what happens when R’sRO are used as a tool. When they are used as a weapon, a few skilled warriors can completely disable the process. Guess how they are being used here.
A legislative process does not have to be a political process, in the worst sense of the word. What is missing from this General Conference is a covenantal commitment to the greatest common good of United Methodism. Our parts and pieces have usurped the whole. I am not sure we could articulate a common good at this point. (Nor an uncommon good, for that matter.) You can see the shift in energy as the process morphs from a way to get things done to a means of preventing things from happening. And it is a distinct minority that knows how to manipulate the system (and among the most adroit, none of our bishops seem to qualify.)
But when we get to the point of operating at cross-purposes with each other, our outcomes get lost. It doesn’t feel to me as though we are serving our church anymore, but have gotten distracted and sidetracked into the dynamics of our artificial community of 850+. Somehow we have managed to make General Conference all about us. Past, future, global, home church — all lost in the shuffle.
This is not true for all, but it does seem especially true for a vocal minority. I am not advocating that we stop using Robert’s Rules per se, but I am suggesting that if we choose to use them, we use them well. I do believe we need to stop launching new processes and new procedures without adequate orientation and training. We need to ask our bishops to receive training in presiding, and I think we would all benefit by hiring “professional” Parliamentarians. And if we ever truly decide to move to consensus, I hope and pray we will not reduce it to a mere process or exercise. If we get our house in order, perhaps it will not be quite to easy to disrupt and derail.