Friday, October 05, 2007

Alternative Forms of Disruption

The quickest means I’ve seen to disrupt the orderly flow of a business meeting is for the moderator to shift into a mode that has been misnamed “discernment.” I make this claim from my observation of several General Assembly committee meetings, the recent General Assembly Council meeting, and now a meeting this week of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA).

I can nearly guarantee that if you introduce “alternative forms of discernment,” chaos ensues.

The most recent example involved a generally insignificant item of business that tied up COGA for more than an hour in three separate episodes of confusion, yet caused COGA to stumble to a nonconclusion with no decision in sight. Why should it take such a tortured a process just to set an inconsequential theme for the 2010 General Assembly? Well, more accurately, not to set the theme yet, as it turns out.

Why do moderators of Presbyterian meetings keep tossing the consensus sabot into well-oiled parliamentary machinery, causing it to seize up and belch smoke?

Alternative disruption: Round 1
At the recent COGA meeting, chair CatherineUlrich, ordinarily a conscientious moderator, seemed intent on forcing consensus on the committee proceedings when it was handling the prosaic task of determining a theme for the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis. Some Twin City leaders had suggested “Rivers of Living Water,” from John 7:37b–38. A group from COGA was suggesting some variation on the theme of hope, using one of several pertinent psalms.

Normally a group would talk about the pros and cons of the two suggestions, vote for one, and that would be that. Not with Ulrich inserting an unfamiliar and unwieldy discernment process.

Ulrich wanted the committee to use four steps: (1) state a proposal, (2) ask clarification questions, (3) explore other options, and (4) reach consensus. She treated the “Living Waters” theme as the proposal and considered the “Hope” theme an option. Then the group came up with other options, including an awkward “Rivers of Living Hope” hybrid, which was meant to please everyone but won no one.

After a lot of stumbling around the issue, with members not following Ulrich’s intended course through the consideration, Ulrich conceded the obvious: “I do not think we’re moving toward consensus.” Her solution was to hand out index cards and encourage members to write notes to one another. And then she abruptly halted consideration for a season.

Alternative disruption: Round 2
After a break, Ulrich found docket space to resume the discussion. “I was feeling we weren’t moving to consensus,” she explained. “Does anyone have a better sense of where we might like to go now?”

Joan Gray, Moderator of the General Assembly, suggested something rather routine for Presbyterians: a vote. “Would it be possible to have a straw poll?” That seemed okay to Ulrich, but she made it clear that the vote was not binding. It was merely to get a feel for how the body was moving toward consensus.

Then Ulrich asked for what appeared to be a rather prayerless form of prayer, intended, as she stated it, “to cleanse our minds and hearts and clear a space.” What? Such a practice may be an approved method to empty one’s mind for transcendental meditation or some other form of eastern rite, but isn’t prayer for Christians intended to be our sacred communication with the Living God?

One would think that pseudo-prayer as a convenient means to an empty mind and psychic space is worse than no prayer at all. Prayer for wisdom and courage would almost seem to be overkill for something as mundane as an immediately forgotten theme. Prayer for sensitivity to one another’s ideas would seem appropriate. Prayer to praise God or even prayer for fortitude to endure this silliness would be fine. But for “space”?

The straw vote was taken after a solemn period of silence. The committee, it turns out, was nearly evenly split between “Living Waters” and “Hope.” Thus, Ulrich turned to other business, leaving the matter once again unresolved. So far, the score was Chaos, 2; Progress, 0.

Alternative disruption: Round 3
There seemed to be an aversion to any division being truly settled, but nearing lunch, an opening in the agenda provided a third shot at the theme issue. “I can tell from our straw poll that we are actually leaning toward the two themes that had the most votes in the straw poll,” Ulrich observed. “We are down to two options: living waters and hope.” Now the discernment task at hand was to explore the two.

COGA member Dennis Hughes acknowledged that he “had no dog in this hunt,” but he reminded his fellow members that the “living waters” proposal was coming from a small, unofficial group in Minneapolis, while the “hope” proposal was “from our group here.” He said he “would like to stay with our precedent,” so that COGA originates the theme, rather than people in the region in which General Assembly is held. Ulrich, stepping out of moderator mode but not handing over the gavel, also argued for precedent.

Associate Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons pointed out that an overarching theme is designed to be in place for three General Assemblies in a row (something that has probably escaped 99.9 percent of Presbyterians to this point). The “hope” theme would be the first in a series on hope.

And then an odd, awkward exchange happened. Ulrich seemed bothered by what Dennis Hughes had said about a dog, and returned to it. Bringing up Michael Vick’s charges for dog fighting and getting a little preachy about needing sensitivity to animal cruelty, Ulrich appeared to be indirectly chiding Hughes for using “a dog in that fight.” Clearly such language should not be repeated, according to Ulrich. So now a confused accusation of political incorrectness got added in to the chaotic mix.

Hughes hastened to say, somewhat bemused, that he was using a colloquialism about a hunt and not a dog fight. Upon realizing her gaffe, Ulrich seemed to fall all over herself to create a different impression. “We want all opinions to be stated,” she blustered. “Bring them on, because we want all of them.”

So COGA member Jack Baugh, sounding perhaps a little impatient, ventured his opinion: “I get the sense we’re leaning toward #2.”

Ulrich had a different opinion. “I’m not there,” she countered. And then, catching herself, she added sweetly, “I thank you for that observation, and we’ll look at this at another point in time. We need to be comfortable with where our committee is and how we make this decision.” And that was that.

It appeared to this observer that the committee had become quite ready to make a decision, but its chair seemed possibly too uptight to let it happen. Consensus-think seemed to dictate to Ulrich that everyone had to agree perfectly--or perhaps agree with her.

In any case, the upshot was again no resolution of a rather simple item of business after three valiant tries. Ulrich’s final “Thank you for wrestling with this another moment” became the odd benediction to this confused and chaotic attempt at an alternative form of discernment and decision making.

Had good old parliamentary procedure been employed, I’m convinced the item could have been thoroughly discussed, a decent decision could have been reached, and the committee could have had plenty of time left over to deal with other more weighty matters. Some people may not have gotten their way, but most of us learned somewhere around kindergarten that that’s okay.