How Not to Be Open and Welcoming
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!