We Presbyterians love our rules – you know, everything decently and in order. There’s no place we love good order and rule following like meetings. A friend from another tradition recently had to moderate a Presbyterian session meeting, and she wanted to get it right. Here are a few tips I shared with her. Maybe the will useful to you, too.
What does the moderator actually do?
The role of the moderator is to keep the meeting moving in an orderly and timely fashion. You should have a pretty good understanding of everything that is on the agenda and how long each item might take. If something is new or contentious, allow plenty of time for questions, discussion, and debate. If something is relatively routine, move quickly through those items. When one item is taking too long, the moderator has to figure out how to end the debate, either by pushing the group toward a vote if you think they’re ready, by referring the item back to a committee, or by tabling debate until a future meeting. As moderator, your role is to make meetings effective by managing the time and the discussion well. Here is how the meeting should go:
- Call the meeting to order
- Open with prayer or devotion or whatever is customary in your setting. The moderator can lead this or invite a meeting participant to lead.
- Ask the clerk of session if you have a quorum – enough people in attendance to conduce the meeting.
- Ask for any new businessor any changes to the docket. New business goes at the end of the docket. Then make a motion to approve the docket (as amended, if needed). Call for a vote to adopt the docket. Vote.
- Proceed through the agenda/docket.
- Any recommendations that need a vote should come in the form of a motion. If the motion comes from a committee, it doesn’t need a second. All other motions need a second. Technically the discussion comes after the second, before the vote. At my church we are pretty casual and have lots of discussion before we ever get to a motion and second. I usually do voice vote unless it’s likely to be a close call. (For example, the Christian Ed Committee recommends moving Sunday School to 6:30am. The committee recommendation doesn’t need a second. After the committee chair introduces the recommendation and tells why they want to do this, you ask for discussion. Your people can discuss all the reasons this is a good or bad idea. When you feel like they’re done, say, “Are you ready to vote? Ok. All in favor say ‘aye.’ All opposed, ‘nay’. The motion carries/fails.”) Your clerk will record the vote. Move to the next item.
- Ask for a motion to adjourn. Vote to adjourn.
- Close with prayer.
How much should the moderator participate in discussions?
Different organizations have different cultures about the role of the moderator in discussion. One of my goals is to empower my lay leaders, so I do not want to be the expert with all the answers. I also know that if I give my opinion the group will tend to defer to me. Instead, I see my role as helping the group listen to one another and come to a conclusion that everyone feels good about. I also make a point of asking the quieter members of the group to share their ideas or ask questions. When I do participate more directly in the discussion, I try to ask questions to clarify things that are difficult or that I think they don’t see. For example, “What feedback have you received from teachers about the 6:30am time for Sunday School?” or “How might that impact our outreach efforts?”
Moderating a meeting without dominating the discussion is still a growing edge for me since my tendency is to speak out and direct things. Ultimately, though, asking questions instead of giving answers is crucial to developing leaders that are equipped to lead well. A good meeting is one where everyone participates and knows that their contributions are important to the mission and ministry of the organization.