How to Speak
How to Be Effective on the Floor of the General Assembly
It’s June, and for those who are a part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), that means that General Assembly (GA) is here. For those who are new to the PCA or just new to attending GA, GA can be a confusing mix of parliamentary procedure, debates, and presentations. It is easy to get frustrated when you do not know what is going on, and this can lead to assumptions that what is happening is all predetermined. Last year, I gave some advice on how those at GA could be civil in their interactions and speech in “Slow to Speak.” This year I would like to give some background to the discussions on the floor of GA (what we call “debate”), to help us to understand why the GA uses parliamentary procedure and to help speakers to be more effective when they choose to speak.
Who is Robert, What are his Rules, and Why Do We Use Them?
Robert’s Rules are actually a manual for “parliamentary procedure,” which as its name implies, comes from the way in which the English Parliament conducted its business. To accomplish any business in a group, there must be rules as to what is permissible and what is not. In their most essential form, rules must include provisions forbidding physical violence and shouting over another speaker, as well as for mechanisms for voting. But that is the bare minimum. That’s why someone no less than Thomas Jefferson, when he was the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate, compiled a Manual of Parliamentary Practice. Henry Martyn Robert, a Brigadier General who was active in church and civic organizations, took this to the next level with a Pocket Manual, and finally, Robert’s Rules of Order Revised in 1912.
The essence of “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised” (or to use the latest acronym, RRONR) is that they are designed for three main purposes. First (and most practically), they keep a meeting moving along. Now I know to the GA-newbie it may seem like RRONR actually delays and complicates the GA, but could you imagine a meeting where there was no agreed-upon mechanism for determining who could speak? Or how to change a motion? Or how to vote on a motion? A meeting (especially with 1200+ men!) would degenerate into chaos. Think about that when you are getting frustrated with the latest “point of order.” The second purpose of RRONR is to ensure that decorum is followed in the meeting. This should be less necessary in a Christian meeting than a societal meeting, but experience shows us that boundaries reminding us of our duties under the 9th commandment are very helpful. RRONR ensures that the discussion is about the principles and motions involved and not the personalities or motives of speakers. Technically, to protect the honor of other speakers, under RRONR you are not permitted to say, “Mr. Greco is incorrect when he says…” You must say “the previous speaker is incorrect.” There is no place for insults, questioning of motives, or harsh speech. The third (and perhaps most important) purpose of RRONR is to protect the rights of a minority of, or even an individual in, a deliberative body. The majority cannot just run completely roughshod over a minority in the body – there are protections in place to make sure everyone is treated equally, and that the rules apply to everyone. In sum, the PCA GA uses RRONR (that’s a lot of acronyms!) to ensure that we are a deliberative body, discussing and refining the business before us and making every effort to find broad consensus.
OK, So How to Do I Use the Rules and Not Look Foolish?
Now to the “advice” part of this article. If you are sitting in your seat at GA and you realize that you don’t know what is going on, what do you do? Do you make your way to a microphone and stop the entire Assembly to ask a question in front of 1200 men? I hope not. Far better to turn to someone around you and ask, “What is going on now?” or “On what are we about to vote?” Far too often I see men who do not understand Robert’s Rules try to be helpful, without seeing that they are delaying the Assembly and being very unhelpful.
So, if you are considering rising to a Point of Personal Privilege, it’s simple: don’t. As the famed theologian,Inigo Montoyohas put it, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” The Point of Personal Privilege does not mean, “I want to interrupt and find a way to make you listen to me.” You only use it when it is too hot in the room or when you cannot hear (e.g., the speaker’s microphone is off). In other words, this should almost never be used at GA. Just say no.
What about the famed Point of Information? Often it is used when someone has not been paying attention to the debate and does not know where the current business stands. Or else it is misused in place of its cousin (Point of Order). If you are considering using the Point of Information, my advice again is, just say no. You are just telegraphing that you are not paying attention (which you should be, instead of reading Facebook or playing a game on your phone). Far better to tap someone on the shoulder in front of you and ask, “What’s going on now?” The legitimate use of this point would be something like: “The motion asks us to spend a significant amount of money. Can someone confirm that we have that much in our bank accounts?” Objective. Necessary. Useful to everyone (including those paying attention).
That brings us to the Point of Order. This gets used more than other parliamentary motions, probably because it is the one that allows you to interrupt (you don’t have to wait in line at the microphone to be called). Someone just waves his arm and yells “Point of order!” (Yes, I am guilty as charged – this is how I often speak at GA.) The Point of Order is used to make sure the deliberative body is following the rules (RRONR). It brings to the attention of the Chair and the body that something is wrong, and it should be corrected right now before further problems arise. So what do you do if you are considering a Point of Order? This is a bit more complex. If you have not developed some expertise in parliamentary procedure through experience, but you are “just trying to help, but not sure how,” then the answer is yet again: just say no. In this sense, parliamentary procedure heeds the advice of Yoda: “There is no try. There is do. Or do not.” Think about it. There are more than 1200 commissioners, of which at least two dozen are long-time experts in procedure. Resist the temptation to gum up the works and let someone else make that Point of Order.
Finally, let me speak to the most polarizing of all motions: Calling the Question. First, let me correct a very common misconception. You cannot just jump out of your chair and yell, “I call the question!” It does not work like that. Calling the question is not like a Point of Order, which indicates a pressing need of following the rules. It is a motion that says there is no need for further debate. That brings me to the second misconception: do not call the question just because you are bored or because you have already made up your mind. Calling the question is appropriate once debate has gone on for some time, it is clear from the speeches that nothing new is being added, and the outcome is reasonably clear. One example that I often point out is when a substitute motion (to replace the main motion with another motion) fails by a considerable margin, it should be obvious that the main motion will then pass. Often, in this case, Calling the Question is reasonable.
What Else Should I Look Out For?
By now, you may have noticed that we have dwelt for the most part of procedural matters before the Assembly. There is a reason for that – such matters take up the bulk of our time, and I would contend, the misuse of parliamentary procedure is the biggest time-drain in the Assembly, leading to discouragement especially among newer commissioners and ruling elders. But I do have a brief word of advice for speaking to the substance of motions on the floor. First, ask yourself whether it is truly necessary for you to speak. Has someone else already made the point? Then please don’t feel the need to make it again. It is often said, “we continue because everything has been said, but not everyone has said it yet.” Especially for younger commissioners – if possible, yield the microphone to the more experienced elders among us. Second, be brief. That is, plan to speak for no more than two minutes. If you do that, you will still likely be five minutes long. Be respectful of the many men who are in line at a microphone. Also, if “brevity is the soul of wit,” you should also remember that the Assembly tends to like short speeches and really dislikes long ones (especially those much longer than necessary). Third, be prepared. Have notes in your hand as you come to the microphone. Resist the urge to “wing it.” It will not go well – the halls of GA are littered with speeches that ramble incoherently and do little to advance the business at hand.
I am looking forward to GA this year, attending as I usually do with my wife and several elders from our church. I love the work of the Church. I love the Church because Jesus placed so high a value on her that He laid down His life for His Church. You will see me working in committees, making points of order, and even occasionally speaking substantively to an issue. It is always my hope and prayer that at GA we will glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and do the Lord’s will. I trust that is your prayer as well. If you see me, please come up so we can talk and get to know each other better, the better to serve the Church. Once you see me at a microphone, you will know where I am sitting. I will be glad to listen to how the Lord is working in your ministry.