Monday, January 11, 2010

That didn't go well

This past Saturday, January 9 I attended the first meeting of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area for 2010 held at Presbyterian Church of the Way in Shoreview. I arrived a half hour before the meeting started and was surprised at the large number of cars parked in the lot. This was the largest attended meeting in my recent memory. After I registered I was delighted to talk to two elders from Community Presbyterian in Plainview, my previous church. I soon set up a table and encouraged people in the Presbytery to sign up for our new church development’s Prayer Newsletter.

After the Officers of the Presbytery gave their reports the Nominating Committee presented a slate of candidates for General Assembly Commissioner. They had two slates of candidates. The Nominating Committee presented a slate of elder and minister candidates, and they had an alternate slate of elder and minister candidates. They proposed that the Presbytery vote on the slate of elder and minister candidates that they proposed and not vote on whether an alternate candidate become a Commissioner to General Assembly

That is when the meeting spiraled downward.

Suddenly the Presbytery was bickering (to put it mildly) about voting on alternate candidates to be commissioners, whether the entire slate of alternate candidates could be included in the vote or whether the alternate candidates needed to be nominated one-by-one. The Presbytery then voted to nominate all the alternate candidates which meant that new ballots had to be formed. It was a mess.

I was asked to be a Teller for the votes. After the balloting took place I spent about a hour with the other Tellers carefully counting the ballots. I was told that the meeting didn’t get any better, though I missed those fireworks and can’t comment on them.

I’ve gone to meetings of the Twin Cities Area for almost 17 years. I have participated in many meetings like these. They’re terrible. They don’t build up the body, they are in no way encouraging to new people who come to the meetings, and they deeply diminish our ability as a Presbytery to do common Mission together.

I don’t look at Presbytery meetings as sport—I want to leave them inspired and touched by what the Presbytery is doing to further the Kingdom of God.

My initial learnings from this past Saturday's meeting are these.

1. We need to learn how to disagree better.
I would expect that voting for Commissioners to General Assembly will be contentious. The vote illustrates the theological split within the Presbyterian Church. Disagreeing is inevitable—disagreeing like we did on Saturday is not. One of the proposed Core Values of Chain of Lakes Church is healthy disagreement. What we mean by this is “we always encourage discussion while valuing different opinions. When we disagree we will speak the truth in love, treat others respectfully, without conflict and always seek to stay in community.”

My dream would be for this to become a Core Value of the Presbytery.

2. We have to value the process less.
I don’t leave a Presbytery meeting thinking it was a success if we did a good job of following Robert’s Rules of Order. I still haven’t figured out why we have elevated our procedures to such a high place. Okay—so many people wanted to include the alternate commissioners in a vote for General Assembly commissioners. But is anyone’s salvation at risk if we don’t vote on alternate commissioners in a vote for General Assembly commissioners? Will we come closer to a world that has less violence and poverty if we do? I value process, but it’s not of highest importance to me. We Presbyterians have become almost Pharisaic in our allegiance to how we do things.

If these words seem too harsh, I apologize in advance. I feel a bit uncertain about sharing these words because the New Church Development I serve receives significant funding from the Presbytery. I realize that I am biting the hand that feeds the church I serve. But when I am critical of Presbyterians I’m speaking about family. If you cut me open I would bleed Presbyterian. What drives my thoughts is my desire to uplift the church that is called Presbyterian.

I won’t stop coming to Presbytery meetings, but meetings like this past Saturday’s leave a taste in my mouth that doesn’t leave soon.

My hope is a conversation can get started (especially among people under 50) about how we as a Presbytery can stop having our meetings spiral like they did on Saturday and how we can learn to disagree in a healthy way. Comments to this blog are encouraged!!

Postscipt: Stephanie Anthony, pastor of First Presbyterian in Hudson, has added some comments about the Presbytery meeting this past Saturday. I encourage everyone to go to her blog at:


Pastor Stephanie Anthony said...

What I saw at the core of the problems of the meeting was a lack of trust. Members and commissioners to presbytery not trusting the nominating committee. Ministers and elders not trusting each other to follow the leading of the Spirit instead of their own personal opinions. No one trusting anyone enough to set aside the process idolatry. I think lack of trust is at the core of that idolatry you mention (OK - my word, but it's the one that came to mind from your comments). We want to know and stick to and have standards in our process because everyone is distrustful that when something is on the floor that is important to "me" it will be handled fairly and equitably. Does that makes sense? I think we cling to the process so tightly so that we can believe our pet issues won't be swept under the rug and pushed through by folks who don't want the same things we want. Again more distrust.

I haven't been in the presbytery very long at all, and I know I missed a lot of history even in recent years. I also have no idea how trust is rebuilt after, what I believe must have been, a very painful group experience.

I do think as a presbytery we have quite a few people (on different sides of different issues) who feel very passionately and led by the Spirit to make sure the causes they believe in are advanced and protected. I really think these folks believe that what they are doing is the work of God, and I even think some come close to equating it with very important prophetic work. Unfortunately, we've got folks with conflicting positions both believing their position is the prophetic way forward as the people of God. That puts them at odds with each other for sure.

I don't mean to justify it. I think I'm just describing what I'm seeing, at least as a relative newcomer. I, too, don't see the meetings as sport, but I guess it comes off that way sometimes because I'm a TOTAL dork when it comes to Robert's rules. I hope I'm not one who idolatrous to the process, but what I mean is I like the complex ins and outs of how it all works in ANY situation, not just the Body of Christ. In fact, I agree that it's not always the best way to do business in the church, but since it's the only place I get to see it at work sometimes the more complex and obsure the points of polity are the more excited I get about where we are in the process. My weird joy, though, is completely separate from the issues that are being discussed. I just love a good amendment to a substitute motion. DORK. I know.

Neal Lloyd said...

Stephanie has correctly labeled that trust is at the core. I'm not sure (based on 40 years of awareness of the twin cities area) what exactly that means or when it was lost, but it has been gone a long time.

I don't think we idolize Robert's Rules of Order. The problem is we abuse them. What Robert does is describe an orderly way for organizations to do business that protects the rights of the minority and seeks to guarantee just the kind of debate and engagement that Paul puts forward as the ideal. The problem is that one must start and end within the framework of the whole method. What Presbyterians routinely do is lazily glide through a meeting heedless of good process up to the point that there is conflict and then they go looking for an appropriate wedge, or club, in Robert to guarantee they get their way. Just the opposite of the way it is intended.

As for the Nominating process for GA commissioners, this same debacle has occurred before and some blame can be laid at the feet of the Nominating Committee and those who advise them on just how certain names may or may not be perceived. I saw the list on the website and said, "this list will be trouble". It was only a question of how the trouble would take shape and form

Duane said...

And I'm left being curious. Who will be the commissioners and who will be the alternates? And I'm curious, too, about how they were presented. But being curious is not a problem.

Pastor Stephanie Anthony said...

OK, Paul, I expanded my comments and put them on our church's blog. I don't know that they got much clearer or more organized, but they are there.

Thanks, Neal, for your thoughts, too. I have to say I was thinking a little more about some of our processes that are outside of Robert's, or at least that we organize outside of Robert's, but that's impossible to tell from my comment. I definitely agree that applying them only once things start to get contentious leads us to try to find a way to use them to "win" instead of us use them to foster fair discussion. That drives me bonkers

Rebecca Fletcher said...

I am also relatively new to the Presbytery, and not in the know about the history behind these issues that get contentious at our meetings. Saturday's meeting did not cause me any great emotional distress, but it did leave me scratching my head. Were people upset about the process of nominating candidates for commissioner? Were they upset about the process of voting for candidates for commissioner? Were they upset about the slate of candidates put forward for commissioner? Were they concerned about efficiency of time and use of resources? I'm still not sure. Regarding the process of nominating candidates for commissioner, I was under the impression that priority was given to certain churches in the Presbytery on a rotating basis so that from GA to GA, different churches would be represented within our delegation. I suppose that I figured the nominating committee would be looking for people from those churches whose "turn" it is. After Saturday, I do not know whether this is true or a myth, but I would say that those who are upset with how the nominating committee does or did its work should think seriously about joining the committee instead of complaining. According to Betty, the chair, the committee is only half staffed. Regarding the process of voting, I feel there was definitely a lack of trust. What happened seemed analogous to a PNC bringing a candidate to the congregational meeting, but having the congregation nominate those candidates whom the PNC had already thoughtfully and prayerfully ruled out for one reason or another. If you elect a body to do a certain task, you should trust them to do it. I'm not saying that the voting process was the best one possible, but it's the one we had. Perhaps before this issue comes up again we can revise the process. Regarding the slate of candidates, well, if someone feels so strongly about the people who will go to GA, perhaps they should seek to be commissioners themselves. Regardless of ideology of any individual candidate, I felt bad for all of them, especially when vote totals were announced. I applaud and affirm each of them for being willing to endure that process. Regarding efficiency of time and resources, well, if that was the intent of the conversation, it failed to save either time or paper. Overall, I found myself wondering whether the dispute(s) were based on theology or personality?

Chainoflakesncd said...

Thanks to Stephanie, Duane, Neal and Rebecca for sharing comments.

I agree with Stephanie that trust is the issue we lack in our Presbytery. The contentious and frustrating debate last Saturday was a reflection of this lack of trust.

I don't have quite the allegiance that Neal has to Robert's Rule, but I respect my friend's viewpoint. My frustration is our contentious debates frequently turn into a debate about Robert's Rules. As I shared in my blog I don't leave Presbytery meetings think they are successful based on whether we successfully followed Robert. This isn't a criticism of the rules; it's an acknowledgement of what is ultimately important.

I think what happened in the meeting--at least the part that I attended before I left to be a teller--was that some folks didn't like the nominees put forward, the Nominating Committee was frustrated because they didn't have nominees come forward to the last minute, the Presbytery wanted to vote on the alternates, the Nominating Committee wasn't prepared for such a vote.

So there was a disagreement--no big deal--but why do we respond to these disagreements at the Presbytery meetings from the reptilian part of our brains? I don't feel like we try to find the mind of Christ together--instead we question people's motives, trash the process, turn the debate into a process debate, and make disparaging remarks. We're not bearing with each other well.

Two years ago we as a Presbytery voted on whether to accept Paul Capetz' desire to be reinstated into the Presbytery. That was a very contentious issue, but I left that meeting feeling energized because the meeting was conducted so well. Sure some people left very upset because they didn't like the vote. But at least at that meeting I had the sense that people were treated fairly and even though we disagreed about the issue we were trying to find the mind of Christ together.

The next time our Presbytery meetings start to go down this "reptilian road" would someone stand up and say, "let's take a moment to pray that we can disagree well."