Alan D. Strange
There are a variety of ways to run the session meeting, the ordinary composition and work of the session being set forth in Form of Government 12.4–10. The meeting usually begins with a devotional time (that may or may not involve training; for more on this, see below) and a time of prayer. While presbytery and general assembly meetings are generally open, unless meeting for cause in executive session, session meetings in many of our churches tend not to be open, at least in practice (though perhaps not formally closed). This is generally because the meetings address matters relating to families of the church more particularly than occurs in the higher judicatories. Sessions may want to consider being open and inviting church members to attend (without privilege of the floor, of course) and restricting what needs to be private about counseling, member concerns, discipline, and so forth to an executive session. It is helpful and encouraging to the membership to provide access to the meetings of our judicatories, which is to say the parts of those meetings appropriate for members to hear.
In the early part of the meeting, after the devotional and prayer, it is common to adopt the docket (the schedule to follow in the meeting), give privilege of the floor to any non-elders (we commonly do this for deacons in attendance at our session meetings), adopt orders of the day (e.g., the time for interviewing prospective members, adjournment, etc.), approve the minutes of the previous meeting, and read communications. It is typical in reading communications to commit these to some latter place on the docket or to give them to a committee (e.g., announcement of an upcoming youth meeting may be committed to the youth committee).
As noted, deacons may be at the session meeting, as there are often matters of interest common to both the elders and the deacons. With respect to this, it should be noted that not only does the session have regular oversight of the deacons through reading of their minutes (FG 6.5), but that the session is also encouraged to meet with the deacons “at regular intervals to confer on matters of common responsibility” (FG 6.6). It is my observation that fruitful interaction with the deacons is often a weakness for many of our OP sessions. The continental Reformed churches tend to be much better at this, with the elders and deacons meeting regularly in the council for matters of mutual interest. It seems that one helpful way of addressing this would be to have sessions not only read the minutes of the deacons quarterly but also to meet quarterly with them to address matters of common interest. Another place of fruitful interaction between elders and deacons may occur in the practice of house visitation. Rather than have two elders visit members annually, it might be helpful to have an elder and deacon visit. The deacon could particularly address needs, even advising as to budgeting and the like (helpful in the more difficult economic times that many of our people have experienced, along with our society, in recent years).
With respect to committees, it is common in our churches for the session to have various committees chaired by elders (and/or deacons) that report at the session meeting through the elder representing that committee. Typical committees are an evangelism/outreach committee, a missions committee, a Christian education committee, a youth committee, a fellowship committee, a hospitality committee, and the like. The strength of such an approach is that it allows the session to take proper leadership of all the parts of the work of the local congregation, and it allows the members of the local church an avenue of ongoing and focused service as a proper part of their exercise of the general office of believer (FG 3.1). If an area belongs exclusively to the elders (worship and discipline, for instance), then the “committee” for that is the session itself. But it is good to enlist the members in outreach and fellowship and other areas of service. Many of these areas may also come under the ladies’ fellowship or whatever the women’s society may be called. For example, some churches have women’s missionary societies or other auxiliary groups that send cards and flowers at time of bereavement or provide meals for those in need of such. Such organizations should have an elder representative ideally who can interact with them and bring their concerns to the session, as well as provide sessional oversight.
An important part of sessional oversight involves finances: the pastor’s salary, financing and maintaining facilities, the church’s benevolent giving, etc. There are various ways of doing this: some churches commit this largely to the diaconate, who reports to the session either through a deacon or elder who is liaison to the session. Some churches handle this through trustees (FG 31). Others have a treasurer who is a session member and reports to the session. The session has general oversight of this work, however it chooses to carry it out. It is perhaps best that the details of this work, like the details of other work (say, the fellowship committee), not occur in the session meeting but be reported to the session for its approval.
The session meeting can be used for officer training. Take a half-hour to an hour and discuss what you’ve read through or read through it together. It could be a devotional work, like Owen on mortification or Hallesby on prayer. It could be a book focused on the work of the eldership, like Tim Witmer’s The Shepherd Leader. Or you could study books of the Bible or work through the Westminster Standards (recommend the Larger Catechism) or systematics (Bavinck, Berkhof, Hodge). You could use this time to work through the Book of Church Order or parts of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (11th ed.) (RONR). There’s so much one can do to train elders and deacons, and some prefer to use some part of the session meeting to do that.
Many of our sessions are smaller than twelve, and RONR indicates that a smaller body may wish to operate informally rather than formally. This means not requiring seconds (the purpose of which is simply, in the larger body, to ascertain that someone other than the mover wishes to discuss the motion). It also means that the moderator can speak without leaving the chair. This last one only works, however, when the moderator is a reasonable man who will not abuse that privilege and completely dominate the meeting.
Who should the moderator be? The FG says only that the session “shall choose its own moderator annually from among its members” (13.4). This is, in many if not most of our sessions, the pastor. If the pastor is not the moderator, the pastor needs to draw up the agenda, because no one knows the congregation and its needs like the pastor. Elders are said to “share in the rule of the church” with ministers (FG 5.3) and also to “have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the Minister of the Word and help him in his labors” (FG 10.3). While an elder may moderate the session, it is the duty of elders to “help” the pastor “in his labors.” Whatever elders do is to be done with this in view and to this end, like Aaron and Hur upholding Moses’s arms (Exodus 17).
It is commonly—and wrongly—thought that moderators do not have the vote. If, however, “the moderator is a member of the body over which he presides, he may vote in all the decisions of that body” (FG 18.3). If it is thought advisable for a session to call in a neighboring pastor for counsel, that pastor can moderate the session meeting, though he will be without vote (FG 13.6). If, however, a pulpit is vacant, a ministerial advisor, jointly approved locally and by the presbytery, may not only moderate but vote (FG 13.6). Sometimes, when a church does not have a pastor and the ministerial advisor is unavailable, and the situation demands action, a session may meet and conduct its business without a minister. However, “the grounds for the call of such a meeting shall be reviewed at the next meeting at which a minister is present” (FG 13.6). This reflects that a proper session meeting should have at least one minister and elder present, or at least two elders if there are three or more (FG 13.5), reflecting both the preaching and ruling offices. A minister, as member of a particular session, retains the right to debate, make motions, and vote. He usually does not exercise such rights when in the chair, because it is unnecessary. It is only necessary to do so, ordinarily, either to make something a tie (and thus defeat it) or to break the tie (so that the motion carries). Let us be done with the question in our sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies—does the moderator possess the right to vote? Yes, though he does not ordinarily exercise it on a voice vote, such not being necessary.
It is the case in a larger body (presbytery and general assembly, certainly) that the moderator leaves the chair if he wishes to engage in debate. He stays out of the chair the entire time the particular question and its allied motions are under consideration. This is to maintain both the appearance and the reality of impartiality on the part of the moderator. Even the moderator of the session, though permitted to speak to issues from the chair because of the more informal occasion, should not be overly partisan. It is wise even for sessional moderators to leave the chair if they wish sharply to contend for something and/or if their remaining in the chair seems too domineering to the proceedings.
Perhaps the session does wish to operate more narrowly according to RONR, either because it’s a larger session or simply prefers to operate more strictly according to the rules of order. The right use of Robert’s in all the judicatories of the church guarantees the rights of both minorities and majorities, seeking to avoid the tyranny of either. Most of the apprehension about Robert’s arises from having suffered under an abusive use of it by some person or persons who knew it well (or claimed to know it well) and used it to achieve their own ends to the detriment even of the good of the body. But such need not be the case. A right use of Robert’s begins with the understanding that such procedural rules are not inimical to the achieving of desired goals but are needed for such worthy ends, so that all will be done in equity and with effective time usage. The end of the use of rules of order in running a meeting is so that each might show proper respect and honor to the other (Phil. 2:1–4) and that the business of the meeting be conducted in such a way that principles and not personalities prevail. One might say, the rules of order allow you to attack the issues and not each other.
Some examples of a wrong use of Robert’s might be helpful in getting a handle on its right use. One may not, for instance, use the motion “to lay on the table” to kill a main motion. “To lay on the table” is only to be used to set aside an issue so that something that needs to be considered first can be taken up (e.g., folks needed to address a certain issue have to leave the meeting early and it’s moved to lay on the table so that the matter that pertains to them may be taken up first). To lay on the table is not debatable and it’s inequitable (not fair) to seek to kill a main motion (that’s debatable) through a motion that’s not debatable (another motion should be used for this—“to postpone indefinitely”—which is debatable). If there is any doubt on the part of the moderator as to the intention of the mover of the motion “to lay on the table,” he should ask the mover what his motives are—specifically, whether he intends to kill the motion. If that is the mover’s intention, the moderator should rule the motion out of order and tell him that the correct motion here would be to postpone indefinitely.
Another abuse of Robert’s is the use of “point of personal privilege” to malign an assembly for an action that it has taken. Sometimes after a vote, someone rises to a point of personal privilege and continues further to argue the case: “What we just did was wrong,” or the like. One may use it to say, “In the debate that we just had, I was intemperate and ask the body’s forgiveness,” or more prosaically to say, “I can’t hear the speaker,” or “It’s too hot in here.” There is also the practice in some circles of someone yelling “question” or “call for the question” to demand a reading of the main motion followed by an immediate vote thereon. There is no provision for such a preemptory ending of debate in Robert’s (there must be agreement by vote or consent to end debate). It is also an abuse of moving “the previous question” to propose such immediately after a motion has been made or opportunity for debate given only to one side. Similar to this is a motion to close nominations immediately after only one nomination has been made. One last misuse that I will mention at this point is a dilatory motion, something that is unnecessary and simply has the effect of slowing the meeting down—like calling for division when the vote was evident or calling for it when the business has moved on after the chair declared the vote. It’s these misuses that give Robert’s a bad name and make people think that the rules of order are there for obstructive people to use to impede the flow of business, rather than well-meaning folk to use so that the business might be handled without rancor and with dispatch.
What if you are moderator, especially in a larger meeting (this would include, of course, presbytery and general assembly)? If you are a member of that body, you always have a vote (as noted above), though you should not ordinarily choose to exercise it except to make or break a tie or when a ballot is being cast. Maintain proper impartiality, ordinarily leaving the chair to debate. Seek common consent for uncontroversial motions. Pay careful attention to moderating and learn. Be prepared to give brief tutorials at the beginning of meetings and from time to time. Require men to rise and address the chair and know the rules for proper recognition of someone seeking the floor. Always give the mover the right of first speech. Call on those who have not spoken in preference to those who have when two rise together. Alternate “for” and “against” speeches where appropriate. Know the relevant bylaws and standing rules. Pay close attention to the debate and appropriately indicate where matters appear to be (“We heard extensive argumentation on both sides; are we ready to vote?”). You are, under the Lord, running the meeting. Be properly directive and prompting (not wrongly controlling: servant leadership). A pause in debate—“No further debate? I see no one seeking the floor. I am about to put the question. I will put the question . . .” Know what to do at the point of the vote to the final declaration thereof.
Pay attention to speech lengths (Robert’s permits two speeches at ten minutes each, though no one is to speak a second time before all wishing to speak a first time have had such opportunity) and rule clearly on points of order as to whether the point is well taken or not. Parliamentarian aid may be sought, but he is always advisory. When appeal is taken, it must be seconded, and you get first and last speech (all others get one). Moderators must always keep in mind that the bodies they chair may have bylaws or standing rules that differ from Robert’s. For example, the standing rules of general assembly allow only five minutes for a second speech and “if any member consider himself aggrieved by a decision of the Moderator, it shall be his privilege to appeal to the Assembly, and the question on the appeal shall be taken without debate” (SR 8.4). Just remember that what may seem forced and unnatural about all of this will show itself not at all to be as you gain experience in moderating and participating in meetings.
What if you are not in the chair but participating as a member of the judicatory? Address the chair properly; address all comments to the chair or through the chair; never use first names but say “a previous speaker.” The purpose of all this is to focus on the issues and not personalities, so that the truth may be honored and so that you may walk in as colleagues and walk out as colleagues. The purity of the church is not to be sacrificed for its unity, but neither is peace and unity to be sacrificed for a misguided purity. We need a good dose of humility, and deliberative assemblies are likely to inculcate it (or else harden us). Be aware of what you can and cannot do in the course of debate. If you see the rules being violated, either by the chair or by a member, rise to a point of order. Appeal a decision that you think would be detrimental if left unchallenged. Do not fail to make a parliamentary inquiry if you do not know how to accomplish your righteous goal.
Robert’s is not, as some seem to think, some book of unfathomable procedural mysteries. It is really nothing more than applying common sense and logic to the meeting, tempered by Christian sensibilities. General Robert was a churchman and developed his manual in no small measure to help in church meetings. Thus, as you study Robert’s, look for the logic:
Motions that would end, limit, or modify debate (including to “lay on the table”) are themselves undebateable. Privileged motions are undebateable.
Motions that would in some way amend, refer, or postpone consideration (either definite or indefinite) are debatable.
Motions that would limit debate (but not, in this case, “lay on the table”) require a two-thirds majority. This includes the “objection to the consideration of a question” which must be moved immediately after seconding or the stating of the question before debate has begun. It does not require a second and is undebatable. Pay attention to the other motions that require two-thirds (adopt or amend bylaws; make special orders of the day; close nominations).
Some incidental motions may interrupt the speaker and do not require a second (points of order) while others may not interrupt and require a second (to divide a question).
Once a motion is decided, it is improper to bring it up, unless on reconsideration (which can be done only by someone on the prevailing side).
Dockets for session meetings vary in their construction. Typically it would involve all the kinds of things that we have discussed here, roughly in this order: opening devotional and prayer, call to order and roll call, minutes, correspondence, old business, financial report, diaconal report, pastor’s report, new business, committee reports, elders’ concerns, membership matters, time of prayer, adjournment. That’s a rough order and sessions may wish to add or take away as they see fit. If the meeting is open, the session would likely reserve membership matters to the end when that and other sensitive issues may be treated in executive session.
The thought that should be uppermost in the mind of all at a session meeting is that of washing the saints’ feet (John 13). The members of the session should seek to wash one another’s feet, i.e., should engage one another in a lowly, servant mode. And the members should remember that they are all called to wash the saints’ feet in the place to which God has called them in service. Here’s how the thinking should go: We in this meeting ought to consider the other better than ourselves and humbly serve each other in the greater service to which we are all called—humbly serving God’s people in this place. While the offices are not the same—ministers administer the Word and sacrament, engaged in leading in the church’s central task, worship—both ministers and elders govern the church, and they do so in a servant mode, in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, as head of the church, washed his disciples’ feet. If we would keep this in mind and prayerfully seek to act in this way, our differences would be manageable, and likely would be minimized, as we all seek to have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5–8).
Alan D. Strange is associate professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in New Lenox, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, April 2013.