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How Rules of Procedure Serve the Church

From Elder Chair Kurt Elting-Ballard
and Parliamentarian Anthony Bushnell, 2021

The apostle Paul tells us that in church worship “all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul says this while discussing how to organize the use of spiritual gifts in worship in order to make them most effective for loving everyone in the body: people should take turns; people should limit their time so others have time to participate; and the church should prioritize use of gifts from which everyone can benefit rather than giving attention to miraculous gifts that most will not understand (1 Corinthians 14:26–33). Paul believes that order is such an important part of loving the whole body that even manifestations of the Holy Spirit in miraculous gifts must be subject to these limitations of orderly worship. The message is certainly not that the gifts of the Spirit are bad; the message is that even good things can be unhelpful to the body and fail to serve the church if done in chaos and disorder (1 Corinthians 14:39–40). Paul makes a similar point about eating the Lord’s Supper in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 11:20–22, 33–34). 

Let All That You Do Be Done in Love’

As a body, we use rules of procedure for church meetings for the same reason: To be consistent in treating each other fairly and to enable everyone to participate, so that everyone will benefit as part of the body. The Bible teaches us that order is loving and benefits the church. Paul tells us that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10) and he sums up how the church ought to treat each other with: “Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:14). 

Yet Jesus, Paul, and every other writer of Scripture never assumes that if we are sincerely acting in love, we will just get that right. They all give numerous commands and guidelines for how we should act in order to succeed in loving each other. Although the Bible doesn’t give us specific guidelines for meetings, we use Robert’s Rules of Order because it is the most commonly used method of procedure for meetings. It has been revised over the course of more than 100 years, and therefore it has a high degree of dependability, consistency, and fairness. The Rules are designed to ensure that every member has the chance to participate and be heard, while still ensuring that the whole congregation has the final say in what happens.

‘Cheat Sheets’ for Robert’s Rules

One way that using Robert’s Rules serves each other is that they are widely available to anyone, and there are many helpful cheat sheets on the internet. (Three good ones are linked below.) Most people will never need to buy the actual 816-page rulebook. The Robert's Rules of Order In Brief edition is simpler to use as a reference and has a Kindle version; it was written by the same authors currently responsible for Robert’s Rules.

Helpful Robert’s Rules Cheat Sheets

Inexpensive charts and simplified walkthroughs are all over amazon.com. This serves the congregation more lovingly than if the rules for our meetings were unusual and not widely available. Anyone can learn these and use them.

Keeping Everyone Equal 

The Rules also keep everyone equal. They give us something fair and impartial to refer to if a dispute comes up. The elders can’t simply set aside the Rules whenever it seems preferable or easier. That is part of the point of using procedural rules: The elders are bound by the rules just like the rest of the members. This ensures we all have an equal say and we all have equal access to the means of bringing up business or requesting changes. The Rules can, in fact, be modified or relaxed in different ways during a meeting, but only if someone makes a motion and the congregation votes to do so. 

Another way the Rules preserve equality is ensuring that people get a fair chance to speak. For instance, a person can only rise two times to speak on a motion and cannot speak for more than 10 minutes each time. If those limits didn’t exist, someone could monopolize the discussion by being assertive and lengthy. The Rules ensure access for everyone: Any member can approach the mic to speak and anyone can raise a motion or discuss one as long as people take turns.

Using a ‘Motion’

Sometimes people feel like Robert’s Rules keep them from being able to simply say what they have to say. This can be an unfortunate side effect, but it doesn’t have to be. The Rules generally provide a way to say whatever is needed at a meeting if it relates to issues involving the congregation. One way the Rules do that is requiring that a motion be put forward for the congregation to decide upon before discussion happens on that topic. This ensures that what people are coming up to the mic and saying is not just anything they want to be heard about, but something the whole meeting may need to hear and decide upon. For instance, a Quarterly Strategy Meeting is not the right time to raise a topic solely because you want to get people’s reactions to it. A subject must be raised by way of a motion, meaning that there must be something for the congregation to decide to do. This ensures that the time everyone is taking to be there is used efficiently to make decisions as a church.

How to Gain Understanding/Be Clear in a Meeting Setting

If people are unclear about what is happening at the meeting or uncertain about how to raise an issue, they are always free to ask. It is perfectly fine to stand up and say, “I am not quite sure how to do this: Here is what I want to do.” The chair and the parliamentarian are there to help everyone and enable the congregation to participate together in the meeting. You can always ask a question by saying, “Point of Information,” or “Point of Parliamentary Procedure,” and then explaining what you are asking. Some an overview of common actions under Robert’s Rules

In particular, if a member has a motion in mind before a meeting, the elders have asked that members let them know at least a week ahead of time. This gives members the chance to work with the chair and parliamentarian to avoid any procedural confusion during the meeting, and it gives the elders the chance to be ready with any information related to the motion. We don’t want to hinder members who have business to raise for the congregation, but rather help work with them to avoid confusion and ensure they know in advance how to say what they want to say.

There are many ways that we try to be gracious and relaxed about using Robert’s Rules. For instance, the procedure of the Rules technically requires a person to put forward a motion by stating only the motion itself (perhaps with a few words of explanation or question about procedure), and then if it is seconded, discussion can begin and the person can then state the basis for their motion and explain it. But in practice, as a church we routinely let people fully explain what they are trying to do and why they are bringing their motion when they first stand up to bring a motion. Then we clarify what the specific wording of the motion is and ask for a second. This simplifies things for everybody and makes it easier for members to be clear about what they are asking the congregation to do.

What Is Not Appropriate in a Meeting?

However, there are some things that it is not appropriate for members to try to do through a congregational meeting. For instance, motions must be about actions that are proper for the church to take together. A motion should not be focused on another member of the congregation, as if asking those present to side with you against that member. In discussion of the motion, it is also inappropriate for any member to talk to or about another member. Discussion is supposed to be about the issues in the motion and the decisions to be made, not about people. So each member who speaks should address their comments to the chair and the whole congregation and talk about the pros or cons of the motion to be decided, not about the person who brought the motion or the person who spoke last. It’s appropriate to disagree with each other’s points or arguments (e.g., “I disagree with Bill, and I would suggest we look at this another way”) but not to embarrass or accuse each other.

There are also some matters that we as a church have already decided in our constitution and bylaws to delegate to elders or officers. For instance, the elders must nominate candidates for elder, deacon, or church officer. The elders must propose the annual budget. The elders must initiate church discipline matters regarding a member and must review and decide any grievance brought against an elder, deacon, or officer. Our governing documents also delegate the responsibility of defining the teaching of the church to the elders, following the biblical pattern of the New Testament, and therefore the elders cannot be required by the congregation to adopt a particular position or statement of teaching. These are all matters that it would be out of order for someone to try to raise by motion at a meeting. Instead, concerns about any of these things should be brought to the attention of one of your campus elders and discussed that way. 

Legal Reasons for Using Robert’s Rules

Bethlehem also uses Robert’s Rules for legal reasons. Our church is a family, and we need to see each other that way. At the same time, Bethlehem is also a non-profit corporation that has to follow some formal rules to remain incorporated. This is essential for donations and for many expenses to be tax-exempt, but it is also essential for other things such as protecting the members or officers from being personally liable for debt taken on by the church. In order to act as a group while avoiding legal complications, a church needs to have a legal status such as incorporation. This requires that there be governing documents such as our Constitution and Bylaws and that procedures be followed for all decisions. The church’s bylaws state that Robert’s Rules shall be used as the procedure at all church business meetings (bylaws, Article V, Section 2, f). Most organizations of all types use these same rules. If a church simply disregards its constitution or bylaws, or fails to use rules of procedure, all sorts of legal problems can eventually occur. So our church family works together under a set of rules in order to protect each other.

Another way these rules protect our church is by ensuring decisions by the congregation have legitimacy and legal security. Churches have been sued by members for imposing church discipline, for removing someone from membership, and for removing someone’s ordination status as a minister. Churches have also been sued by members over use of money. Various government agencies may also investigate a church if complaints are made. When such a lawsuit or investigation occurs, one of the critical details that affects the outcome is whether the church followed its constitution and bylaws consistently and made decisions according to orderly rules of procedure. A church that does not follow its bylaws or that uses inconsistent procedures at business meetings is in danger of losing such a lawsuit. This is not the most important reason for a church to use Robert’s Rules, but the church does have a responsibility to protect its members from lawsuits and to preserve the legitimacy of decisions made by members at congregational meetings. Using Robert’s Rules helps ensure that when the church decides as a body how to handle things, those decisions will stand.

Robert’s Rules vs. the Bible?

Most importantly, we don’t use Robert’s Rules as an alternative to the Bible. We use Robert’s Rules as a tool to help us apply the commands of the Bible and love one another in the details of congregational meetings. Like any tool, rules of procedure can be used lovingly to serve the body or they can be used to undermine and divide the body. Let us work together to serve one another (Philippians 2:1–4, Galatians 5:13). When people speak at a Quarterly Strategy Meeting, remember to practice what Scripture says and think charitably of their words and their intentions (1 Corinthians 13:5–7, Ephesians 4:2–3, Matthew 7:3–5). We know that many of us often have trouble getting our words out or explaining ourselves, and we should be quick to listen to each other and try to understand before we respond (James 1:19, Proverbs 18:13). 

We hope and pray that this article will help us as a church in understanding these rules so that we can serve each other better and love each other as Christ loves us. Please pray for your church and your leaders that the Lord would give us wisdom and charity as we keep doing this together.

Also see Actions Commonly Used Under Robert’s Rules of Order.