Thursday, February 02, 2012
Of Meetings and Meaning, part 3
And so the question -- did the "experiment" work? I think that there are several ways of answering this.
I've heard many people say that they really appreciated the way the meeting kept returning to song, or to the unison reading of words important to this community. They said that it helped keep them grounded in they why of what we were doing. To the extent that this was true for people, than I would certainly say that it was a successful meeting.
Yet within many of these same comments there is the caveat -- that things went well until we began to disagree with each other. People have talked about "spoiling the positive atmosphere" that had been created. Some even called this, "painful." To the extent that this was people's experience, than the experiment failed or, at least, did not succeed fully.
And I don't mean, by this, that it "failed" because there were hard discussions and hard feelings. There were supposed to be! Or, rather, there was supposed to be space for them if it was needed. The whole idea of a congregational meeting is that it is a chance for the entire congregation to take ownership, and have a real voice, in the work that most of the rest of the time has been delegated to the few in formal leadership positions. We cannot always work as "a committee of the whole," and so certain individuals and groups have been given the authority to make decisions and do things on behalf of the whole. And, yet, it would not be right for our faith community to abdicate its authority to govern itself and, so, on a regular basis the leadership brings some of its decisions and actions before the whole congregation for their input.
Some may think that it's the desire of the Board, for instance, to have all of its recommendations adopted. And, indeed, it would only be human for that to be true to some extent. Yet if we're serious about calling these congregational meetings opportunities for input, then it must -- must -- be intended to take seriously any and all input. And that includes disagreement and debate. Let me hang on this for a moment longer to be absolutely clear: when the board or a task force brings its recommendations to the floor of a congregational meeting, whether they know it or not, they are truly asking for the opinion of the whole community on the work that they've been doing on its behalf. If that opinion is negative, then that is what they want to hear. If the congregation, as a whole, disagrees with an idea that's been worked on by the leaders, then it's important for those leaders to hear that and for things not to move forward.
There is nothing here that "spoils" anything. In fact, honest disagreement honors the "mood" by demonstrating that this really is a space in which people can speak their minds. In the Unison Affirmation of the first congregation that I served there was the phrase, "we respect differences of opinion and strive to be a democratic community." I often said to them, "How can we know that we 'respect differences of opinion' if we never have any?" This is a sign of health, not disease.
From my vantage point, much of the "heat" that was generated during the meeting had to do with parliamentary process as opposed to the actual issues being discussed. Folks seemed to be doing quite well listening to members explaing why they thought a particular revision to the bylaws that was being proposed was a not a good idea. Folks seemed to be in general agreement that this particular item should be left for further study. Yet people were getting downright irate that there was more than one motion on the floor at a time, or that discussion was called for before a motion had been made, or that someone was "calling the question" in a way or at a time that was not exactly according to Hoyle.
This put me in mind of the line from Marge Piercy's poem with which we began the service in which she said, "We talked about the table, and the chair, and the chairperson, and the motion to table the chair." I came away from this experience convinced that we need to either hold some kind of brief "intro to parliamentary procedures" prior to each such meeting, and provide some kind of handy "cheat sheet" for folks to use during it, or that some model other than Robert's Rules should be used.
Heresy, I know, but Robert's Rules is not sacred scripture (despite its inclusion in my photo above). It's simply one model that's been developed for helping a meeting to run smoothly. Yet as U.S. Army Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert himself noted when his rules were first published in 1876, if the rules themselves got in the way of the smooth running of a meeting than the disrupting rule(s) should be ignored. The bottom line was not a slavish adherence to Robert's Rules, but ensuring the smoothest and most effective meeting. In the 136 years since the Brigadier General's rules were first published, communities have experimented with many other models. It is possible, that for a liberal faith community in the 21st century, that there might be another way.
Be that as it may, though, for now. I am convinced that this experiment was a success . . . if seen as a first step. There is certainly more work to do -- both from the strategic/planning perspective but also in the lived-in experience dimension. Some plants take time before they bear fruit. I, for one, am hoping that this new plant will be given more time to grow.
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