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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Quick Guide to Parliamentary Procedure

In case you're wondering, this distinguished personage is Henry Martyn Robert. Besides being a guy with three first names, why do you suppose he deserves a place on this blog?

Why, because he's the Robert of Robert's Rules of Order, of course!

Most people don't know that Robert was a Colonel in the U.S. Army and a member of the Corps of Engineers who served in the Civil War (later he was promoted to General). The experience that led him to set down in exhaustive detail a set of rules for parliamentary meetings had nothing to do with the military. It took place in a church setting.

Specifically, it was a raucous congregational meeting that got out of hand. An engineer like Robert, who surely had a passion for keeping things in good order, would have been especially troubled by the chaos.

In case you're wondering, it wasn't a Presbyterian church. Robert was a Baptist.

So, Robert's Rules were actually birthed in the church --- although the good Colonel based them, loosely, on the rules of the U.S. Congress, which in turn were inspired by the British Parliament.

If you've ever picked up a copy of the full Robert's Rules - the complete version, not one of the many abridged versions out there - you've surely been impressed by how dense and incomprehensible it seems. It's a real brick of a book. Here's the cover of the first edition, from 1878.

The book is periodically revised by Robert's descendants, who own the rights to it. The most recent edition contains rules for some situations the venerable parliamentarian could never have imagined - like electronic meetings.

Fortunately, most elders - ruling as well as teaching - don't need to master all those procedural intricacies. A number of simplified versions are out there, that should be more than adequate for most situations that come up in a session or congregational meeting.

If you want a really abbreviated version, Therese Howells, a fellow stated clerk, has just put up a helpful article on the PC(USA) website. She hits most of the high points.

Read, mark and inwardly digest her simplified list of motions, and you'll be well on your way to engaging in church government for fun and profit (the profit being of the non-pecuniary variety).