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April 23, 2008: Suspending versus Amending

As they say in the N.F.L., "after further review..."

Yesterday I suggested that some of the Standing Rules regarding the Stated Clerk election should be suspended. I slept on that overnight and realized that suspending the Standing Rules is not the best remedy.

Amending the Standing Rules is the best remedy.

What's the difference?

The process

Here, we go back to the Manual of the General Assembly. It has been awhile since I have mentioned this document; however, if you are going to play, you need to know what are the rules. Get used to going back to the Manual to read the rules word-by-word. You cannot count on your memory of how things work because they may have changed.

Here is what it says in Standing Rule L:

2. The Standing Rules of the General Assembly may be amended by a two-thirds vote of the
total enrollment of the commissioners. A motion to amend the rules is debatable.

3. A motion to suspend the standing rules is not debatable and shall require a two-thirds
vote of the total enrollment of the commissioners.

Suspending the Standing Rules would be an extraordinary way to address the problems in the Stated Clerk election process. The motion would have to be made very early in the Assembly -- before most commissioners and advisory delegates have even gotten their feet firmly planted on the ground. Imagine: commissioners and advisory delegates have just found their seats and a motion comes to suspend the rules. A vote is immediately taken. To the uninitiated, it would seem like an ambush. It is not on the docket, it is not part of the program materials they have received, it is not something they have prepared to consider. The commissioner who made the motion would be spending all three quarters in the first few moments -- the procedural equivalent of going "all-in" in Texas Hold 'Em. If the motion fails, that commissioner will be known as, "That's the guy who..." or "that's the woman who..."

Amending the Standing Rules is different because it is a debatable motion. The reasons for amending the rules could be brought out, debated, and then voted.

The question for such a move has to be: is it worth losing?

Why phrase the question in the negative? Well, if the motion to amend passes, then there is no stigma attached to it. The maker of the motion has correctly articulated the desire of the Assembly and moved it to a result it wanted to achieve. On the other hand, as I mentioned, if the motion fails, the maker of the motion may have a long week ahead.

Is it worth the risk?

Yes.

The election of the Stated Clerk is too important to have it hang around the periphery of the Assembly all week. It is too important in the life of the denomination, it is too important at this time. The Assembly needs to engage the next Stated Clerk in an extended conversation about the direction he will pursue (at this point, both known candidates are male). The Clerk will play a vital role in the choices that are made for the denomination. If the express desire of the Assembly is to move in a more "missional" direction, questions should be asked about the candidates' vision of what God is leading the denomination to be, their framework of understanding how to get from here to there, and their ability to lead. There also are questions about the integrity of the Constitution, about whether it applies the same in every presbytery. Candidates should be able to articulate how they would defend the Constitution. There are questions about how the candidates would use the bully pulpit -- the power of persuasion -- to address issues within and outside of the denomination.

The only meaningful opportunity for the Assembly to have that conversation comes only prior to the election. The current process has a five minute nominating speech on Sunday, an informal time with candidates mid-week, and the hour and a half speech and Q&A immediately before the vote. That's not a real conversation.

Further, there currently are only two known candidates: the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee's nominee, Gradye Parsons; and the candidate who announced on Presbyweb yesterday, Ed Koster. There were twelve other applicants that the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee did not select -- what happens if even half of those twelve also announce their intention to stand for election?

Establishing a commissioner committee to interview the candidates would enable a real conversation to take place. After an orientation time on Sunday night, there would be an hour or so to set the process for the next two days. Look at the proposed docket:

Monday: Committee Meetings II (9:30 a.m.); Committee Meetings III (1:30 p.m.); Committee Meetings IV (7:30 p.m.)

Tuesday: Committee Meetings V (9:30 a.m.); Committee Meetings VI (1:30); Free Evening, committees meet as necessary.

If each of those sessions is 2 1/2 hours, that gives 15 hours of Assembly time for commissioners and advisory delegates to invest in prayerfully discernment process to recommend the next chief constitutional officer for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

And this is why it is important to know the difference between "suspending" and "amending" the Standing Rules: there is no discussion or debate prior to voting on "suspending"; there is an opportunity to debate and explain the reasons for "amending." Ambushing the process is not well received. Without any debate, that is how a motion to "suspend" would be perceived. On the other hand, win or lose, trying to help the Assembly to do a better job of making a very big decision puts a commissioner on the side of the angels.

Posts older than April 14, 2008: Archives

(P.S. Just to head off any suspicion that this is a back-door effort to change the rules so I could campaign for the job myself, I remain not interested. I am confirmed in my discerment that God has called me to serve at Chula Vista Presbyterian Church.)