Monday, November 12, 2007

How Not to Be Open and Welcoming

The meetings of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entities are intended to be utterly open, according to policy. In practice, however, actual openness and welcome vary considerably, from transparent and warm, to cold and prickly, to secretive and pretentious. At the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) meeting last week in Los Angeles, I witnessed a major instance of the cold pricklies at one point.

At the beginning of the second day, Jim Roberts was newly arrived from San Diego to observe. Roberts is an attorney specializing in mediation, a member of the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Sun Valley, Idaho, and a director of the Committee to End Divestment Now. He had previously attended an MRTI meeting in New York City, prior to the 2006 General Assembly. He had also graciously corresponded with MRTI leadership about his planned attendance in Los Angeles.

The MRTI chair, Carol Hylkema, began the meeting by asking Roberts to introduce himself, since he was newly arrived. Everyone else had done the same the evening before. Roberts stood and gave his name, where he was from, and his church, and he made some friendly comment about coming to observe the meeting. He was ready to sit back down, when Hylkema indicated that she wasn’t done with him yet.

What followed next was nothing less than a public interrogation, with Hylkema firing off questions in an increasingly adversarial and accusative tone. (My account, here, is approximate and reconstructed from memory; the quotations are not exact, although the flow of the conversation is intact.) “Who are you representing?” she asked. Roberts answered. “What will you be writing about us?” Hylkema shot back. Roberts said he was just visiting and didn’t think he’d be writing anything.

Hylkema wasn’t satisfied. “You were with us before,” she declared, as if that were a crime she had caught him committing, “and you weren’t clear then about who you were representing.” She seemed to be implying that there was some kind of prior disclosure required of anyone who dared attend one of her meetings, and somehow Roberts had violated her rules the last time he had dared to darken her doorway. Roberts remained courteous and even deferential in his reply, even though Hylkema was sorely violating common courtesy as well as proper moderatorial decorum.

"You’ve got your computer with you,” Hylkema pressed. “So what is going to go into that computer?” Roberts said he was actually trying to read his e-mail, if she really must know. After more of what seemed like the Spanish Inquisition, finally Hylkema let Roberts sit down, and the meeting went on. The damage to openness and welcome, however, had already been wrought.

Many ways to get it wrong
What was wrong with this episode? Let me count the ways:

1. An introduction ought to welcome a guest, not treat one’s guest like a suspect. Roberts, I’m sure, felt about as welcome as the black plague when that little interrogation was finished.

2. Observers ought to be encouraged to attend meetings, not be browbeaten by those in authority. Roberts had forgone a day’s work, traveled hours, and paid for a hotel and meals in order to be a concerned Presbyterian involved in Presbyterian matters. That’s a sacrifice. That’s commendable! He is active, committed, and invested. Is that not something to be encouraged, honored, and appreciated by those in charge? Why discourage such behavior and demean the person?

3. Observers should never be required to pass some sort of idiosyncratic test devised by committee leadership in order to attend meetings. According to policy, observers “have a basic right to know,” and meeting leaders “have a basic obligation to honor that right.” Observers have no obligation to divulge any organizations they may be involved with, as if being a part of such organizations makes any difference in their right to observe the work done and decisions made by entities of their church government. In addition, had Roberts wanted to write an account of the meeting, he would have been entirely within his rights, and Hylkema had no authority to quiz him about what he might write, why he was writing, or to whom the account would be distributed. That is none of her business! It is her business, however, to conduct the meeting openly and fairly.

4. A public accusation of a guest is a heavy-handed and entirely inappropriate way for a committee chair to use his or her authority. Perhaps Hylkema had personal qualms about something Roberts had done or not done at the previous meeting. If so, the proper course of action would have been to confront him privately about his actions, and if that hadn’t led to a satisfactory resolution, she ought to have properly charged him in the appropriate venue with whatever misconduct she considered he had done. Then Roberts could have had his “day in court” to defend himself. As it was, however, Hylkema acted as if she considered Roberts devious, right off the bat. She ambushed him with some vague and apparently bogus accusation, when she should have been a gracious host. Hylkema had the gavel and was calling the shots, while Roberts was caught totally unprepared for such rudeness. The unfairness of the situation was palpable. What were committee members supposed to think of this man, come to be their guest, after Hylkema had poisoned the relationship from the get-go?

5. The episode disclosed a shocking attitude of proprietorship on Hylkema’s part. She acted as if it were her meeting, and hers it was to grant or deny access, once she became fully satisfied that this interloper was worthy enough to be entitled to receive her beneficence. Thus she could interrogate and accuse, assuming permission to attend was hers to grant or withdraw. How wrong! The meeting was not Hylkema’s meeting. It was not even MRTI’s meeting. It was the Presbyterian Church’s meeting, and how appropriate it was for church members to be present! Hylkema as moderator, MRTI members as elected members, and denominational staff as servants of the process had roles to play, but none of these parties owns the meeting or has any right to make it difficult for church members to participate as well. While Presbyterians have many fine servant-leaders, we are not meant to have owners and masters to lord it over us.

An alternate scenario
Think of how this might have played out differently: Roberts introduces himself. Hylkema welcomes him warmly and commends him for having the interest and making the sacrifice to attend. She uses the opportunity to be sure that others know they will be warmly received if they, too, make the effort to observe. As a gracious host, she makes sure that Roberts feels at home and has all the papers and access he needs to meaningfully observe the meeting. She might even wisely turn to Roberts sometime during the meeting and perhaps draw upon his knowledge and experience to enhance the gifts the committee members also bring. Roberts goes home, feeling appreciated and positive toward MRTI and its work. The committee perhaps benefits from what he has to offer. And the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is all the better served because of this interaction.

That’s how it might have been. Maybe it might actually be that way yet, sometime in the future. Certainly our Open Meeting Policy intends such pleasant circumstances. After all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

12 Comments:

Blogger Mark D. Roberts said...

Whoa! Thanks, Jim, for this post. Very scary.

6:25 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Mark D. Roberts said...

Oops. Sorry. Last post by: Mark D. Roberts, Boerne, TX

6:26 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Stephen Bolin said...

I know, that is pretty scary if one can not even attend a meeting without being embarrassed like that. Sad.

Stephen J. Bolin
Poolee, USMC
Pleasanton, California 94566

8:39 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Viola said...

Jim,
Has any one confronted Carol Hylkema with her rudeness? She owes Jim Roberts an apology. She owes all Presbyterians an apology. This all sounds like "Big Brother" (Big Sister)at work!

Viola Larson
Sacramento, CA

9:55 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Viola,

Good question. I talked with Carol at a break and basically presented the case I made in the posting. She listened fairly and responded evenly, saying something to the effect that she heard what I said.

She did not indicate any intent to apologize to Jim Roberts, nor had she done so as of earlier today. Nor did she indicate an intent to change her practice, which she yet might do upon further consideration.

It would be the right thing to do, as Wilford Brimley used to tell us about eating oatmeal.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

11:19 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Gary said...

Jim,

I know that this should probably be a short response to ensure that people will take the time to read it, but since I have had a first hand experience similar to that of Jim Roberts, I thought I should provide a descriptive account of what happened to me when I observed an MRTI Committee meeting.

I am a Presbyterian Elder and I attended the MRTI Committee that was held a meeting in Chicago, IL. last year, September 6-7, 2006, as an unannounced interested observer.

Your description of how Jim Roberts was questioned by Carol Hylkema was almost a carbon copy of the questions she asked me. I did not feel welcome by either the MRTI Committee Chairwoman Hylkema or the PCUSA staff advisor to the committee, Bill Somplastsky-Jarman. The rest of the committee did not seem to mind and some were very courteous and engaging in their discussions with me during breaks in the meeting.

This was the first MRTI Committee meeting following the 217th General Assembly (GA) and I was very interested to see how the committee would respond to the new guidance it was given with regard to the Israel targeted divestment issue that their committee had been pursuing since the 216th GA. A major agenda item scheduled for September 7th was to deal with just how the committee ought to respond.

From the personal discussions among committee members just before the start of the MRTI Committee meeting, I quickly learned that on the evening of September 5th, the night before, members of the committee were shown the pro-Palestine video “Iron Wall”. Then upon reading the meeting agenda, I learned that an event was scheduled for the evening of September 6th, 2006 described as a "Hosted Evening Discussion with Group Dinner". It was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at Northpark University and the MRTI Committee was invited. The agenda indicated that it had been arranged by Dr. Donald E. Wagner (a Presbyterian minister member of the Chicago Presbytery who serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Associate Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies, Northpark University, Chicago and is a co-founder of the Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding). Dr. Wagner is also an author critical of Zionism and frequent speaker at pro-Palestine conferences.

The agenda described the event as an "Informal Education and Strategy Discussion on Israel/Palestine Issues". The event was further described as follows:
"MRTI is invited to join people from the Chicago Presbytery Middle East Task Force, United Methodist Church North Illinois Conference (recently passed a resolution on corporate engagement related to Israel/Palestine), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Middle East Task Force, Palestinian spokespeople and resource people including Dr. Don Wagner, who is pulling the meeting together.

Discussion topics will include current issues related to a just peace in the region, history and current status of indigenous Christian presence in the region, strategy approaches of the various groups, Palestinian perspectives on the way forward and framing of corporate engagement in a strategy for positive change."

I asked the Chairwoman of the MRTI committee, Carol Hylkema, if I could attend the event as an observer. She deferred an answer to the PCUSA staff advisor to the committee, Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, who said that I could not.

Given the apparent plans to prepare the committee members to discuss the “divestment issue” agenda item scheduled for September 7th, I expected that there would be some significant discussion of the subject when it came up. Yet the following day, there was very little discussion of the subject, at least during the official meeting at the scheduled time for the discussion.

I could not help but feel that my unexpected and unwelcome presence had altered what this committee's leaders might have said or done if they had been able to act in relative secrecy without the presence of any interested observer.

The lesson that I learned is that open meeting policies of the PCUSA need to supported by all who want responsible governance and policy development in the PCUSA.

11:49 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Viola said...

Gary did the program actually refer to the Christians in the area as "indigenous" because that is becoming a buzz word in all kinds of places with very political imlications?

Viola Larson
Sacramento CA

7:46 AM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger Gary said...

Viola, and others,

First, I forgot to give my full name and location when I made my last post. I am Gary Green and I live in Chandler, AZ.

With regard to the term "indigenous" that appears in my post. I provided a quote taken directly from the agenda sheet that I was given during the morning of the first day of the MRTI Committee meeting and I suspect that the person who wrote the agenda was probably the one who chose to use the term "indigenous".

I agree with your observation about the use of the tactic of raising concern for the "indigenous" people of Israel. In my opinion, the foundation for such an argument against Israel is largely based on the notion that Israel was colonized by European Jews, thereby displacing indigenous Palestinians. On occasion, the language used against Israel is more accusative with claims that the land was stolen from the indigenous people of the region. This over simplification leads to many fallacious arguments against Israel including the "Apartheid" analogy the pro-Palestinians like to use, implying that the Jewish European immigrants of Israel are much like the European colonists of South Africa.

Gary Green
Chandler, AZ

6:13 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger Viola said...

Hi Gary,
I thought that was you. I did not mean to change Jim's subject--I know that’s rude--but I have been working on something that includes the way indigenous groups are seen which entails both their land and their views of the sacred. Which means not only do you not touch their land since they were there from the beginning but you do not attempt to convert them since their religion is tied to their land. The word just jumped out at me and I had to ask.
Viola Larson
Sacramento CA

6:29 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger will said...

While I dislike this (very strongly), it was completely predictable - and even somewhat understandable.

You (Jim Berkley), Jim Roberts, Gary, and Viola have all experienced this because all have been critical of certain policies of the PC(USA) and particularly of certain actions of Committees, Agencies, and employees of the PC(USA). These criticisms were, IMO completely warranted and very necessary, but the hostile reaction is expected.

I say this as someone who shouldn't - but I find it ironic that all would find these criticisms unnecessary if two things would occur. 1. If ordinary Presbyterians followed an essential part of theoretical Presbyterian polity - being actively involved in things that pertain to the whole church; and 2. if the various committees, agencies, employees of the national denomination would follow the procedures (such as the spirit and letter of the open meeting policy - among many others) that are clearly required by the Book of Order - and by general ethical norms.

If these two were to happen, there would be no hostile relationship; there would be no embattled bureaucrats; and there would be no incidents of this kind.

Thanks very much for keeping us informed.

Will Spotts
North East, MD

8:06 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger Aric Clark said...

*sigh*

I just don't understand why everyone is so defensive all the time. There are genuine and legitimate disagreements, even rifts, in this denomination and so strife is to be expected. Instead of responding as we should and being MORE open, MORE honest, even MORE communicative than ever we all clam up and make conspiracy theories in our head about how the other side is out to get us so we'd better not trust THEM...

*sigh*

What horrible treatment. I hope an apology is forthcoming. I hope the treatment improves. I hope activists in our denomination who are critical of the leadership and our policies will seek to be equally honest and open. By all means attend meetings, and if you're there with an agenda just announce it. Let's clear the air and stop pretending it's a cloak and dagger game.

Aric Clark
San Anselmo, CA

9:35 PM, November 15, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Aric,

Thanks for your comment. I sigh, too. It really ought to be simple.

The problem comes, I think, through a sense of ownership and entitlement. If a denominational committee or group has seemed like the proprietary club of one group--say social liberals and theological progressives in the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy--and it has been a chummy, "safe" place in which everyone speaks the same shorthand and opinions are very similar, then some "outsider" butting in to this clique will be resented. I heard it at ACSWP, an actual "He doesn't BELONG here!" bellowed out by an indignant staff member.

I'm sure that Chair Carol Hylkema feels a degree of ownership of MRTI, and by gum, if people like Jim Roberts are going to go poking around at HER meetings, she's going to first get a good reading on what they might be up to!

Her apparent attitude reminds me of a city police officer in Cave Junction, Oregon, who once ran my buddy and me out of town when we were hitch-hiking through. He wasn't going to have our likes in HIS town, no sir-ee! "I want you boys outta town when I come back, ya hear?"

What is needed is the attitude all around that this isn't OUR personal enterprise. This is the CHURCH, and the meetings belong to the CHURCH and ought to reflect an openness and welcome that reflect a "this isn't ours to hoard" and "we've got nothing to hide" kind of attitude.

Okay, so some bad apple comes to the meeting and writes tripe about it. In an open meeting, there will be others there, too, and other opinions. Any untruthful slam or biased report will make the writer look bad, not the group being reported on.

So what if the writer finds something the rest of the church needs to know, even if it is unflattering or painful? Well, the group being covered will be the better for it. Sunshine has a way of bleaching stains. Defensiveness, distrust, hiding discussions or decisions, going around the plain meaning of good rules--all this just adds to the rot, and it will only get worse. Just get it out in the light and let's deal with it! It's so much healthier and more productive.

I agree with Will Spotts, in his earlier posting. If people would just simply follow the policy, it would be so much easier and better.

Very often rules have a darn good reason for their existence. This is such a case.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

12:06 AM, November 16, 2007  

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