Roberts Rules of Order is Not Holy Conferencing So Stop Petitioning for the Holy Spirit to Show Up

Jason Micheli —  February 25, 2019 — 4 Comments
Watching the United Methodist Church at General Conference skate along the knife’s edge of schism, up from my perch in the press box it’s shocking to me how the future of a denonmination has become handcuffed to a parliamentary process that is in no way intelligibly Christian. The UMC suffers a paralysis of leadership, to be sure, but Roberts Rules of Order are one of the chains not one of us appears to be able to see.
When in the hell did we all agree as Christians to hitch our communal life to RRoO where the ‘winner’ almost always is determined by who can master the passive aggresive rules of arcane prodedure?
At least casting lots over the UMC’s inclusion or exclusion of homosexuals would be biblical; in fact, deciding the fate of gay Christians by lot would be as biblical as traditionalists who come to this argument armed with a few lone verses from the holiness codes.
I’m not sure exactly when the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches accepted giving away the spiritual practices of discernment, reconciliation, and consensus-building to Roberts Rules of Order. I do know, for example, that St. Luke does NOT tell us this in his Pentecost reporting:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, the prayers and Roberts Rules of Order. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
And I know, whenever we went all-in for this unChristian practice, it was likely sometime in the 20th century. Roberts Rules of Order was first written in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert who was an engineering officer in the regular Army. 
In other words, the Methodist Church adopted a secular means of deliberation in the industrial age at the same time the Methodist Church was adopting bureaucratic denominational and congregational structures that intentionally mirrored the corporate practices of the time, which produced, as my friend and mentor Dennis Perry says:
“a conflation of effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process.
If asked most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”
Our adoption of RRoO coincided with our idolization of machines and factories. As a result, Dennis Perry argues, we seek a mass produced, top-down (what we call ‘connectionalism’) one-size-fits-all Christianity rather than a mentored, hand-crafted one; mass produced by a machine-like-culture where there is an artificial separation of management and labor, brain and brawn, producing a denomination that treats its laborers as unskilled and needing supervision:
“We trust statewide and national organizations more than local leadership.
We believe and act as if the larger organization is the real church while the local church exists for the greater church’s good.”
The impulse that gave us RRoO begat these structures and dynamics as well, structures we’ve largely left unchanged even as best practices in business have since evolved, flattened, and streamlined.

In an era where Amazon doesn’t even show me the same products it shows you, RRoO is but one of the ways we’re still trying to be Sears. 


I know in my pastoral experience generations of Christians raised on Roberts Rules of Orders has produced members of an institution not a movement. RRoO has produced leaders who think discipleship is about raising their hand yay or nay at a meeting.
This is a devaluing of discipleship which in turn disempowers pastors into chaplains whose role is chiefly to pray at those meetings.  

This is seen at our General Conference level where our bishops do not actually have the authority to lead our Church; their given only the authority to preside over parliamentary procedure.

Which gets to the real problem with Roberts Rules of Order- as any one who follows Congress knows is that it’s an inherently coercive, oppositional process for an ecclesial setting. In this Roberts Rules of Order is but an antiquated form of the binaries lobbed on Twitter. When a challenging issue hits the floor, for instance, responses are generally limited to three for the proposal and three against, and each response also has a time limit.  Not to mention the amendments, sub-amendments, calls to table, etc. which follow. The more controversial motions passed then get litigated at our Judicial Council, Methodism’s version of the Supreme Court- another troubling not very Gospely attribute of how we’ve agreed to arrange our lives.
Roberts Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing. 
The very nature of pro/con debate and parliamentary maneuvering is not dialogue and leaves the body more polarized.
As my e-friend Christy Thomas says: “Roberts Rules of Order is not the way to bring renewal to the church or bring the good news of Jesus, the one who sets us free and brings us redemption, to the world. [Christian] Dialogue is very, very different from parliamentary discussion.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you. My peace Roberts Rules of Order I give you.’”
Where the first Christians once accepted martyrdom in coliseums rather than betray their loyalty to the Caesar called Jesus, today Christians’ worked to determine the future of the United Methodist Church with discourse that more nearly resembled Caesar asking the crowd for a thumbs up or a thumbs down. 

Jason Micheli


4 responses to Roberts Rules of Order is Not Holy Conferencing So Stop Petitioning for the Holy Spirit to Show Up

  1. So well said.

  2. I’m always touched when you quote me! You have just written a great analysis of the problem. Thank you.

  3. Honest question – if the one church plan would have passed, Would your critique be as sharp? In your interview with Will Willemon, he mentioned that perhaps a more ‘grass roots’ approach to church would be more helpful in this regard, as opposed to the topdown, corporate secular approach you call out above. Perhaps this is a good thing that is happening to the church currently in terms of the general conference loosing some of its power? (What you mentioned in a previous post.).

    I do find Hauerwas’s critique helpful here in that ‘liberal democracy’ and its philosophy is pervasive in the church. On this topic, even his essay, Resisting Capitalism: On marriage and homosexuality, is a riff on this phenomenon.

    What to do?

  4. Our sinful reliance on Roberts Rule of Order has been the cause of much harm in the UMC, but I think there is a even simpler and less Christian practice that lies behind RRoO’s smoke screen. No matter what procedure we use for all our maneuvering, when we make vital decisions by simple majority rule, we crucify Christ again by dividing his Body into winners and losers.

    While consensus may be unattainable, given human nature, surely it would be more faithful simply NOT to approve any policies or doctrines for which there is not at least a sizable super majority. Even the standard of 2/3 sets aside the convictions of a sizable minority, but it would be vastly preferable to 50% + 1.

    If the UMC had operated under this procedure (2/3 majority required) since its inception, none of the language that has caused so much pain to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters would be in the Book of Discipline. Instead, an insanely slim majority has just approved a regressive, punitive plan that will be set aside because it contains provisions already ruled unconstitutional.

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