After leading a church meeting, Henry Robert, a trustee of First Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, came home feeling frustrated, discouraged, and even a bit embarrassed. He had been a trustee for some time, but this was the first meeting he had been called upon to chair, and it had not gone well. Clearly it was more difficult to run a meeting than he had imagined. The matters discussed at the meeting were not momentous, but they seemed to take on a life of their own. As the discussion went on, people became short with one another and, before long, there was an almost complete lack of decorum and order. Even though the hour was late, the trustees seemed unable to resolve their differences and, as chair, Robert felt ill-equipped to lead them to a decision. So on his way home he vowed that he would never chair another meeting until he had a set of governing rules and procedures to guide him. As a former officer in the Army, he knew where to turn: parliamentary law.

And that is how we got Robert’s Rules. They are the result of one man’s experience of an almost universal phenomenon: frustration with a church meeting. In 1876 Henry Robert published the first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, and today the meetings of many congregations, as well as other “deliberative assemblies,” are governed by these rules. To be sure, most often the result is more orderly and efficient meetings than we might have otherwise. But Robert’s Rules can create other problems.

Picture this scene: The congregation has gathered for a meeting to act on a proposal to build an educational wing onto the church. There is a lengthy presentation, then a motion to approve the plan is made, followed by a second. The moderator asks, “Is there any discussion?” And of course there is. After considerable discussion a man stands to offer an amendment requiring that bids be sought from additional contractors. After the amendment is seconded, someone stands to ask a question about the building plans and is called “out of order” because the group is now discussing the amendment. After a few other people speak, a woman stands and says, “I would like to make a different amendment asking the committee to come back with some modifications to the building plans that bring the project back in line with our budget.” The moderator asks, “Is this an amendment to the original amendment?” She responds, “I suppose so.” “Is there a second?” There is.

Someone else stands to say, “But I had something to say on the first amendment.” The moderator responds, “I’m sorry, but we are now discussing the second amendment.” The man who offered the original amendment stands and says, “Point of privilege!” And then he goes on to make a confusing assertion using an odd language that no one seems to understand. The moderator, now looking like a tired pitcher who is being shelled and longs to be pulled out of the game, says, “Do we have a parliamentarian?” Someone answers, “I’m sorry, but Bob’s out of town.” Someone in the back of the room shouts out, “I call the question!” The moderator, visibly relieved, responds, “Someone has called the question. We will now vote on whether to close debate.” The woman who offered the second amendment says, “May I ask something?” The moderator says, “I’m sorry, Sally, but when someone calls the question all discussion stops, unless we vote to proceed with debate.” Sally counters, “But when do I get to ask my question?” The moderator says, “Maybe never. Let’s see.” The congregation laughs, then votes to close debate. Sally finally gets to ask her question in the parking lot after the meeting.

To be sure, this meeting ended in time for everyone to get home for Sunday supper, but in what other ways was the congregation served? The way the meeting was run, it could have taken place anywhere. There was nothing that distinguished it as a church meeting grounded in spiritual practices. The emphasis was on the individual. There were clear winners and losers. The process was slanted in favor of those who knew the rules and could manipulate them. Is this any way to make decisions in a church?

Until a few years ago I did not know that there was another way. In fact, I stumbled into an alternative to Robert’s Rules through something like desperation. The congregation I currently serve had voted to become an “open and affirming” congregation several years before my arrival. (“Open and affirming” is the designation for congregations of the United Church of Christ who have declared themselves to be open to and affirming of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.) The process leading to that vote had been so divisive, however, that the congregation added a caveat to its policy: it would not allow services of commitment for same-sex partners without an additional congregational vote. The compromise did indeed keep the congregation from splintering. Nevertheless, people on both sides of the issue agreed that it was a kind of half-way covenant that would not long stand.

So when I arrived on the scene the issue was waiting for me. Some of the wounds were still fresh. Some parishioners seemed ready for a fight, while many others recoiled with anxiety at the prospect of one. Every time the issue was raised there was a palpable tension in the room. I was not sure how we should proceed, but this I knew: the usual congregational processes would not suffice. Of course we would study scripture and pray together, but it seemed clear that in other ways we would need different practices than the ones we normally used. If we simply raised the matter, tried to “educate” one another, shared our opinions, debated the issue, and then took a vote under Robert’s Rules, the toll on the congregation would be incalculable.

I was eager for another way of making decisions that would be more like a spiritual practice than a business procedure. For some time I had been intrigued by the discernment practices of the Quakers (also called “Friends”). The Quakers seek to discern God’s leading in silence. In what is called the Meeting of Friends they seek to make themselves open to the leading of the Spirit. When a Friend experiences an “opening” (that is, a revelation or insight), it is shared with others in the Meeting. The rest of the time Friends wait in silence. When they meet to make decisions, Friends strive to obtain the “sense of the meeting” from those present before taking action. Votes are not taken and, in fact, the Meeting proceeds in a way that is even something more than building consensus. If a minority opinion is deeply felt and continues to be raised, the Meeting will continue to hear it until such a time as a “sense of the Meeting” is achieved.

As intrigued as I was by these discernment practices, they came from outside our tradition. They were a long way from Robert’s Rules, which our bylaws stipulated were to be followed in church meetings. Besides, I could not imagine the verbal and passionate members of my congregation sitting very long in silence.

Gratefully, at this same time I was doing a lot of reading about the early history of the Congregational tradition in anticipation of our congregation’s bicentennial (our congregation, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, was founded as a Congregational church in 1798). There I encountered some of the spiritual riches of my own heritage that, in many respects, had been lost along the way. Soren Kierkegaard said the church of his time drew so little on the richness of the Christian tradition that it was as if they had inherited a grand estate but chose to live in a tent in the front yard. As I read more of the history of my own tradition, it was not difficult to conclude that something like this had happened in regard to congregational discernment and decision making. We had been living in the tent and I was beginning to look longingly at the grand estate.

The Congregational t
radition can be traced back to England in the early 17th century. At that time there were those who felt called to a different kind of church than what was represented in the state church, the Church of England. Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Congregationalists was their belief that no individual—whether a bishop, priest, or lay leader—is fully equipped to discern and follow God’s will. These early Congregationalists believed that the workings of the Holy Spirit can be discerned in community by receptive hearts that are molded in prayer. Indeed, the very name “Congregational” derives from the understanding that it is the congregation informed by scripture and molded in prayer that is best able to discern what Christ would have them do. They put into practice their understanding that the gathered community is the true vessel of the Spirit of Christ—a term that they used often. They met often and their meetings were seen as opportunities to encounter God in their midst. That is, they were more like worship than legislative sessions. The community did not gather for decision making as much as for discernment. They listened to one another not out of some humanist notion that people of opposing views are worthy of respect but because one can never know who the Spirit will choose to speak through on any given occasion. In other words, these forebears in the Congregational tradition approached decision making very much like the Quakers do—only they talked more.

Increasingly, I am convinced that the Congregational form of polity is a real mess without a high doctrine of the Holy Spirit—the kind of mess that might prompt someone like Henry Robert to craft some rules to bring some order out of chaos. When we do not actively and continually call upon the Holy Spirit, this form of polity collapses like a lung with the wind knocked out of it. Perhaps it is unfair to say that much of this rich heritage had been lost along the way. But this I do know: it is quite different from how I heard people—both laity and clergy—interpret our tradition.

What I heard was: “Here we don’t have bishops to tell us what to do, just local churches ordering our own affairs, doing and believing what we think is right.”

Or, “Here the individual is free to believe as he or she wants. It is up to each person to decide what God’s will is for him or her.”

Or, “A Congregational church is a democracy. We air our own differing points of view and then make important decisions by voting.”

Obviously, these understandings do not begin to reflect the richness and depth of what I was learning about the Congregational tradition. Rather, they represent little more than the hollow shell of that tradition.

Contrary to what is commonly assumed, Congregational polity is not about the individual. It is not about asserting ourselves. A “majority rules” way of thinking is what happens we when take God out of the congregational process. It is not that no one can tell us what to do. Rather, we seek together to discern what Christ would have us do. We listen to one another because we are listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit. As did the people at Pentecost, we wait upon the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that alone is able to fashion understanding and unity out
of diversity.

It was this understanding that we decided to put into practice in our consideration of the congregation’s “open and affirming” policy. How did we do that? Imperfectly, of course. But clearly we were doing something different and it made all the difference.

We spent considerable time—in worship, meetings, and educational events—introducing people to the practice of spiritual discernment and how it differed from other forms of decision making. We were careful to make distinctions between a democratic process and spiritual discernment. The congregation is not a collection of individuals asserting their own views in an effort to determine what the majority wills. Rather, through prayer, silence, and the words of fellow members of the body, the congregation seeks to discern what Christ might say to them. Votes may be a part of the process, but they are not the end toward which the entire process proceeds. Instead, voting is a way of testing consensus, of asking, “Do we sense that we discerned the mind of Christ on this matter?” Note, however, that this practice of discernment is beyond even consensus building. The goal of consensus building is to fashion agreement out of the diversity of perspectives represented in a group. In other words, it is focused on the opinions of the people in the room. Consensus building is a way for a group to figure out together what they think should be done. By contrast, through spiritual discernment we seek to discover what Christ would have us do.

We held numerous gatherings in which people were invited to listen to one another and to listen for the Spirit. We found it helpful to ritualize the understanding that this form of spiritual discernment is different from decision making in a civic club or town meeting. So, for instance, during congregational meetings we invited people to respond to each person’s words by saying together, “May the Holy Spirit speak through us.” Notice that we were not affirming that the Holy Spirit always spoke through us. Rather, we were asking the Spirit to speak through us. By repeating that invocation as a kind of litany throughout the meeting, we continually reminded ourselves and one another that this was to be a
Spirit-led process.

We made room for silence and asked people to wait upon the Holy Spirit through the silence. We were neither fully capable of keeping, nor willing to keep, extended periods of silence, as the Quakers do, but we did ask that there be at least half a minute of silent prayer between each statement made at the meeting. In most meetings people are used to jumping up immediately to respond to what someone else has just said. Simply interjecting a moment of silence
deepened the reflection and made
the conversation less like a debate.

We not only began and ended gatherings in prayer, we also stopped for prayer in the midst of a gathering whenever someone felt led to offer one. Our goal was to approach our meetings as an opportunity to encounter God, and not just one another. In other words, we sought to have our meetings be more like worship than a business proceeding,
so generous helpings of prayer
were essential.

When people asked when we were going to take a vote we told them that we didn’t know and invited them to join us in waiting for further direction from the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual discernment is not an efficient process, certainly not as efficient as a meeting run by Robert’s Rules. It does not allow for someone to “call the question” to bring a meeting to a speedy end. But that does not mean that, in the end, spiritual discernment is more time consuming. Meetings that may seem “efficient” at the time sometimes result in decisions that, for one reason or another, do not hold, and so the process has to be taken up again. Besides, if discernment is approached as a spiritual practice, the journey itself can be as important as the destination.

When we approached our decision making as discernment, the Spirit did not disappoint us. Eventually a vote was taken. It was not unanimous, but there was no great division, either. Remarkably, no one left the church. People on both sides of the question talked about what a powerful spiritual experience the whole process had been. In fact, we were awed by it. Imagine: the tradition that we had been given actually works!

And now, thank God, there is no turning back. We do not use the full range of discernment practices with every decision the congregation makes. For more routine decisions, not all of the tools need to be employed, as long as we remain clear about how our decision making is always a form of spiritual discernment. Nevertheless,
in taking up larger or more difficult matters, we empty the tool box and use all of the discernment practices that have been passed down to us. We have even begun to hold our congregational meetings as a part of worship. Now we are no longer as surprised that, when we approach discernment as a spiritual practice, the Holy Spirit—who is the true hero of this story—can billow through us in powerful ways.


Questions for Reflection 

  1. In what ways do Robert’s Rules facilitate good decision making, and in what ways do they inhibit good decision making?
  2. In what ways might Robert’s Rules need to be modified in order to more fully approach decision making as a spiritual practice?
  3. What are some of the ways in which spiritual discernment differs from consensus building?
  4. What are some initial steps your faith community could take now to make decision making more of a spiritual practice?