News Analysis: Ruminating on Rules

Samuel (Duncan) McMillan, a lay delegate from North Carolina, presents the rules committee report on May 11 to the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, OR.Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

Samuel (Duncan) McMillan, a lay delegate from North Carolina, presents the rules committee report on May 11 to the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, OR.

The Plan of Organization and Rules of Order as adopted at the opening session shall be published in the next Daily Christian Advocate.
 -The Rules of the 2016 General Conference as adopted on 5/10/2016 

It seems that simple, doesn’t it? The General Conference comes together and after a little conversation adopts an organizational plan and set of rules which guide their work together. Whoever wrote the rule listed above certainly believed that passing the rules was not a big deal, that is was something that could be done in a couple of hours, and that they would be available the second day of business to guide the conference in their efforts to discern God’s will.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the delegates to the 2016 General Conference in Portland, OR. The conference is two days into a two-week session, yet they find themselves embroiled in debates on their rules of operation rather than any of the legislative petitions themselves.

Of course, the stickiest wicket is the proposal known as Rule 44, the proposal for an alternative discernment process that forgoes Robert’s Rules and uses a small group process as a means of hearing God’s Spirit about the legislation being considered. But while the proposal has tied the General Conference up in knots, it wasn’t the only issue of contention. Rule 18, entitled “Distracting Behavior,” was a place of concern for some who felt that the definitions of what constituted distracting behavior were not clear. Others expressed concern about the makeup of legislative committees, fearing that they were not inclusive enough. However, in a last-hour action last night, all of the rules as originally proposed by the Rules Committee were adopted . . . all that is, except Rule 44.

Procedural concerns have taken valuable floor time through the first two days of conference. A new high-tech queuing system designed to allow the presiding bishop to better facilitate floor debate has actually slowed down the process as delegates submit repeated points of order, challenging the bishop’s rulings or complaining that they weren’t recognized. Likewise, concerns about the way the electronic voting system worked or the display of the vote counts on the screen made their way into the debate. The high-tech advances only seem to highlight the lack of trust in the process of how the General Conference conducts its business.

That is, of course, at the heart of all these debates and conversations — the lack of trust between different factions in the church. Groups that don’t trust one another lean on precise and specific rules as a means of protecting their corporate interests. On the other hand, groups with high levels of trust can forgo large groups of rules because their relational connections allow them to work things out along the way. What is becoming clearer and clearer as this meeting continues is that the lack of trust is so large that the conference ends up focusing more on how to conduct the church’s business rather than actually focusing on the legislative work that is the reason for being here in the first place.

Rule 44, created and proposed by the General Commission on the General Conference in response to a request by the 2012 General Conference to examine alternative discernment processes, is an idealistic vision which believes that relational capital and trust can be achieved through small group settings, facilitating the Holy Spirit’s work of guiding the conference. The spirit and underlying hope of the proposal is honorable, and the creators of the process certainly believed that its adoption could move the conference to a new and important means of discernment.

But in a toxic environment in which trust is minimal, a relational decision making process becomes fraught, with the various groups worrying that the others will somehow get an unfair advantage . . . and vice versa. Debates on the process (the tools for decision making) the become the focus of debate, and the conference finds itself with less and less time to do the important work of re-writing the Book of Discipline.

Evidence of that dynamic was present throughout the debate today as the delegates wove a labyrinthine path leading them at one point to table the rule by 8 votes (effectively keeping it from being implemented) only to come back minutes later to take it off the table (by a 30 vote margin), opening it up to amendments. These amendments will still have to be considered by the Rules Committee this evening, and then the debate starts all over again. Yes, it IS a little like Groundhog Day!

Tomorrow’s debate will be just as contentious as today’s. A member of the Council of Bishops (speaking off the record) suggested that the next plank in the battle for passage or rejection of Rule 43 will focus on interpretations of Rule 42:

The Plan of Organization and Rules of Order may be amended or changed by a two-thirds vote of the Conference; provided the proposed change or amendment has originated in the Committee on Plan of Organization and Rules of Order or has been presented to the Conference in writing and referred to this committee, which committee shall report thereon not later than the following day (See Rule 29.531.6).

Those delegates who support the adoption of Rule 44 will argue that it was part of the original Rules of Order (adopted last night) and should only require a majority vote for passage. Opponents of Rule 44 will say that this is an amendment or change to the Rules of Order and as such must require two-thirds of the conference to vote for approval. The debate will likely be fierce, and the bishop in the hot seat will need the patience of Job.

In 2000, at what could be described as a contentious General Conference in Cleveland, the rules were adopted within 90 minutes allotted for debate. Four years ago the debate over the rules had extended to 3+ hours over the course of two days. Here we are now having spent 5 hours on the conference rules — and there is more to come.

The trust breach grows bigger or bigger. Whether or not it can be filled has yet to be seen.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

Facebook Twitter Google+ YouTube 

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
5 Comment threads
1 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
6 Comment authors
RobertWilliamPaul raineyJay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Paul W.
Paul W.

Nice spin, but “lack of trust” is NOT the problem. It is simply the natural result of the real problem. The real problem is that over the last 4 years, the pro-LGBT forces have chosen to repeatedly, blatantly, and unapologetically violate our trust and our covenant in collusion with many at all levels of the UMC bureaucracy. Even now, they are still attempting to game the system at General Conference (e.g., Rule 44, CT’s “A Third Way”, and the Global Segregation Plan) to push their radical social agenda. The pro-LGBT agitators couldn’t even wait until after the opening Worship to… Read more »

rich rainey
rich rainey

I love the comparisons of “Ground Hog Day” and “Job” in describing this conference. Just like our do-nothing Congress should we expect anything differently from our Methodist General Conference. The Rules of Order should read, “avoid the real questions at all costs”. I hope there are some good golf courses in the area so conference go’ers can really get something accomplished. A trip to “Chambers Bay” in Seattle might be “In Order”.


Its a bit moot. Rule 44 was defeated today.


The “chicken coop” phenomena applies. When chicken are kept confined and the door is open, they first look at it and are still trapped in their space. They then venture out. Once outside the coop, they enter in a chaos and confusion. And then the start acting like chickens in the chicken yard as they discover what it is like. Those looking for this to be easy are disappointed. There are hundreds of Methodists with a voice. Chaos is to be expected and always takes a long time in open forums. The crowd will settle down and settle the issues… Read more »

Stacy Anzick
Stacy Anzick

I appreciate the work and detailed explanation of the rules but somewhere midway in the article you switched from calling it Rule 44 to naming it Rule 43. I believe it started with the quote from the Bishop. Not criticizing, I know y’all are working hard and wanted to help with the edit.

%d bloggers like this: