A colleague of mine is going to moderate an upcoming presbytery meeting. He has served as a chaplain, and he wanted to discuss how he could run the meeting well. I asked him if he had run any meetings while he was in the military. “Yes,” he said, “but we didn’t get as deep into Robert’s Rules as we do at presbytery.” So, there you have it. Presbyterians are more strict on Robert’s Rules than the military.
Since my colleague wanted to discuss how to run a meeting successfully, I decided to try and express the principles that I have used to moderate session and presbytery meetings. I have also tried to provide some of the broad principles for the various motions so that you do not simply have to memorize the properties of each motion. Below you will find some of my thoughts. I would be interested in reading your ideas, if you would like to share them in the comment box. Here are a few principles that may be helpful in running a successful meeting:
- The key to being a moderator is preparation. You need to have a clear vision of everything that may happen at the meeting. Try to envision problems that may come up and issues that may need to be resolved. Study them beforehand, and the meeting will not get bogged down. Examine everything that will come before the body. Make sure it is in order, and, if not, try to correct it before the meeting. I cannot overstate that the key to a good meeting is careful preparation. This is true for the moderator and all the participants.
- In my opinion, the most important tool for streamlining the meeting is the use of common consent. If something is not going to be controversial, do not wait for a motion. Simply say, for example, “Is there any objection to approving the minutes as amended?” If no one speaks up, then say, “so ordered” and move on to the next item. You can do this for virtually every motion. Remember, though, that if anyone objects, you must follow the normal procedures for motions.
- Try to keep everything in front of you. Make sure you know where you are. If you do not, stop and find out because others are probably lost as well. When you figure out where you are in the order of motions, state it clearly to the body. When you are ready to vote, state clearly what you are voting on. Do not just say, “All in favor . . .” Say, for example, “All in favor of substituting the substitute motion for the main motion, say ‘aye.’” This is especially important when there is a point of order. When someone makes a point of order, rule on it. Then, move on to the next item. Do not engage in a discussion. If you have to ask someone to read a rule, then do so. Either way, act.
- Another important rule is the limitation of speeches. Unless otherwise specified in the rules, no member can speak more than ten minutes (though this time can be extended). In addition, “a member cannot make a second speech on the same question the same day until every member who desires to speak on it has had an opportunity to do so once” (Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised [RRONR], 377).
- You need to be willing to be a little mean. You need to enforce the rules. You have to say, “no” to people sometimes. If you are fair and consistent, most people will appreciate it. On the other hand, the moderator should also help members do the right thing when they are struggling to do so. For example, if they try to make a main motion while there is another main motion on the floor, rule them out of order but tell them that they can make that motion after the current main motion is properly disposed of. You are invested with the authority to lay down the law. Don’t be afraid to do so. If you do not lay down the law, and force others to do so, you will actually end up causing more division in the body.
- Most motions require a majority vote to pass. Some motions require a super-majority. The rules governing the requirement of a super-majority are logical. The rules seek to honor the rights of the minority and the authority of previous decisions. The most common motions that require a super-majority are any motion that changes something done previously (except with notice), changing the agreed to order of business, or any extension or limitation of debate. In RRONR, you will find a huge list of motions. However, the motions that require a super-majority will fall into these classes. For example, the motion “move the previous question” is a motion to immediately close debate and vote on the motion before the body. This requires a super-majority of two-thirds because otherwise, the rights of the minority to persuade the majority would be violated. On the other hand, a minority smaller than one-third is not able to inhibit the majority from moving forward in doing its business.
- Similarly, most motions are debatable. However, some are not. The basic principle is that how debatable a motion is is inversely proportional to how it effects debate on the main motion. For example, the motion to postpone indefinitely kills a main motion. Consequently, there is no restriction on debate. On the other side, a motion to recess does not kill debate. Debate can begin again when the recess is over. Consequently, it is not a debatable motion.
I have tried to simplify some of the complexities of the rules to give a general understanding of how one can run a meeting better. I would encourage you to at least read chapters one and two of RRONR. You can use the rest of RRONR as reference. As for learning the complex details, I have found that the best way to learn these complexities is to look up the questions as they arise. It’s good to read through Robert’s Rules, but we digest it most easily as we work through the matters as they come up.