THIS REPORT IS FROM PRESBYTERY OF CARLISLE MINISTER COMMISSIONER DON STEELE, PASTOR OF THE SILVER SPRING CHURCH IN MECHANICSBURG. THANK YOU, DON, FOR YOUR REFLECTIONS!
REFLECTIONS ON THE 219TH GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Several years ago, my good friend and co-founder of Haiti Partners, John Engle, introduced me to a method of facilitating meetings called “open space.” The method was built on the observation that at many meetings, the best part of the meeting, as far as participants are concerned, is not what happens as part of the official agenda, but is what happens around the sides of the meeting, in informal conversations.
It is an insight that definitely pertains to the 219th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that I attended July 3-10 in Minneapolis. The best part of the meeting as far as I’m concerned was what happened outside of the meeting’s official agenda. There were reunions with old friends from seminary and other presbyteries where I have served. There were fascinating presentations at special lunches and dinners. Worship was outstanding. And gathered around tables at mealtime, I was able to engage in real dialogue with other Presbyterians from across this entire country about important issues.
However, when we gathered to address the official agenda, I found General Assembly to be boring at its best, frustrating at its worst. Dialogue ended and debate began. We ceased to learn and began to be lobbied for our vote. We often found ourselves, not united, but polarized. And when God was brought onto the floor of the Assembly, the point more often than not seemed to be to claim God for “our side” rather than to lead us to try to discern whether or not we were, together, honoring God.
As I reflect on all of this, I think that part of the problem is the method that we use to facilitate the General Assembly and many other meetings in the Presbyterian Church. We use something called Roberts Rules of Order, named for the military engineer who came up with the first edition of them in the latter half of the 19th Century. They represented his attempt to standardize parliamentary procedures, and no doubt, they are still valuable in certain settings, particularly in settings that have primarily a parliamentary (that is, a legislative) function.
But in today’s church, I question their value, to be honest—questions that were deepened by my experience at the General Assembly. For in today’s church, it seems to me, our primary task is not to legislate. Instead, I think that our primary task is to build relational communities of folks seeking together to follow Jesus Christ in Christ’s mission in the world. And so, our method of facilitating meetings needs to change, it seems to me, to methods that promote dialogue over debate; mutual learning over lobbying; permission to follow our passions over promotion of polarization over our differences; all seeking together to discern the will of God, no matter how long that takes, exercising the spiritual discipline of mutual forbearance.
It’s hard to imagine things changing nationally before the next General Assembly meets in Pittsburgh in 2012. I’d guess that the air of the convention center there will be filled with the language of Mr. Robert. But here at Silver Spring, where I actually think that Roberts Rules already are less important in how we live, maybe things can change. At least, that’s the journey that I’d like us to take.
The Rev. Don Steele