Louisville session was not 'closed'

The writer is a deacon and member of the board of the United Church of God Big Sandy. He is also a trustee of the board of the Big Sandy Independent School District and has extensively studied Robert's Rules of Order.

By John Warren

BIG SANDY, Texas--During the general conference of elders of the United Church of God in Louisville, a situation arose on March 8 that overshadowed much of the positive action taken at this convention.

Upon hearing that Dixon Cartwright had been singled out for removal from a question-and-answer session, I felt compelled to write this article.

At some point in the proceedings, an elder called "point of order" and requested the removal of Mr. Cartwright, who happens to be the editor of The Journal. It seems that during the session Bob Dick, chairman of the UCG council of elders, asked all who were not elders or wives of elders to leave the room.

It is not clear to me why that request was made. The bylaws of the corporation give no authority to call a closed session of the general conference. To be out of order, someone must be in violation of some rule or regulation.

If the council of elders had passed a resolution that these meetings be closed, there may have been some legal basis for the request. But, without an amendment to the bylaws, it could have been challenged. The elder was putting the chairman on the spot to carry out his own request for a closed meeting. Mr. Cartwright was exercising his right to remain in an open meeting.

We understand all the procedures that are required for calling a meeting, including proper notice, adjournment procedures, publishing an agenda, etc. There are also rules by which meetings should be conducted. Besides the bylaws of the church, Robert's Rules of Order could be observed.

Too often these rules are not understood or are ignored, and as a result problems can arise. There is a purpose for closed sessions in dealing with confidential matters of the church. These would include negotiating for purchase of property, consultation with an attorney, negotiating contracts, discussing personnel and considering deployment of personnel.

Obviously, these are not appropriate subjects to be discussed openly. These involve executive decisions appropriately handled by the council of elders in closed session.

There are other items that the council does not have the right to discuss in secret. The constitution and bylaws of the United Church of God, an International Association (reprinted in full in The Journal of Sept. 25, 1997), do not mention any provision for closed sessions of the general conference.

The argument could be made that only elders received an invitation, so they are the only ones who should be allowed to attend. We know that the only members of the corporation are the elders, and only elders have a vote.

That reasoning could restrict wives of elders and would certainly restrict home-office-staff members. Traditionally, we videotape these meetings. We would need to ordain the camera crew and any other technicians in the room.

The point is that you simply do not have a closed session with more than 600 people in the meeting. It certainly would have been inappropriate to single out one individual for removal while not removing every noncorporate member.

This was not a closed-session meeting, and the request for all nonelders and wives to leave and the subsequent point of order were not legitimate. Mr. Cartwright was correct in resisting the pressure to remove him from the meeting.

The general conference has the right to conduct the meeting in whatever manner its delegates agree upon. The "point of order" comes from the book Robert's Rules of Order, and the general conference has not adopted Robert's Rules. The decision was made at the Cincinnati conference in 1995 to overrule Robert's Rules with the approved bylaws of the UCG. We have the freedom to decide how to conduct our meetings, but once that decision has been made we are bound to abide by those rules.

Convention organization

With our considerable experience in conducting annual conventions, we should be familiar with how to organize a large meeting. Historically, ministerial conferences have not been of the general-conference format; they have been seminars. The seminar approach has not given us the technical experience of conducting an open meeting. This openness is new and awkward for many of us.

It might be helpful to have a conference committee to help formulate the agenda, schedule and break-out­session topics and handle many other procedural matters. This committee would be helpful to home-office staffer Charles Melear in preparing the venue.

Part of the planning could include setting up the auditorium for the balloting members, designating a place for guests, press and camera crew and handling any other special needs.

The bylaws give the responsibility to the chairman to preside over the conference. Both the chairman and the president have an important part to play at the conference, but another church official designated master of ceremonies or moderator would be most helpful in making the meeting flow smoothly.

If a problem arose, the moderator could confer with the committee for guidance. This would eliminate one man's being put on the spot and having to make a decision off the top of his head. It would also be appropriate to have ushers to assist the delegates and guests to the proper areas in the auditorium and help with the break-out sessions.

Closing the door

Many of the members of the United Church of God were encouraged when the meetings of the general conference were not closed to the membership. Most members have no desire to attend, but it was refreshing to see that those who were interested in paying their own way were not restricted from attending.

Now it seems some elders want that policy changed. The forced ejection of Mr. Cartwright sends a serious message.

We were told United would be different. We were inspired by the words spoken at the first conference advocating openness and transparency. But some seem to want to shut the door on openness and return to the old system.

The elders have nothing to fear from the membership or the press if the conference is properly organized and conducted. Anyone can be removed from a private (different from a closed) meeting if he is disorderly or disruptive, but removing an individual, especially a member who is quietly observing the proceedings, certainly sends the wrong message.

Many people may have preferred that Mr. Cartwright quietly exit the room. If he had done that, that would have been the end of the issue. That would have been the easy way out for him, as well. That would also have closed the door on any hope for the openness we expected and are still working toward.

There is no bylaw that restricted attendance of the meeting. The general conference has not passed an amendment closing the meetings. The council of elders has not passed a resolution closing the meetings. The meetings were therefore open. The "point of order" should have been ignored or the elder told that he had no authority to make such a request.

The problem arose when the chairman requested people to leave the room. Mr. Cartwright has forced the issue to be properly addressed and, I hope, the door will be left open.

Submit to authority

Some may think Mr. Cartwright was wrong for not leaving the room because he was not submitting to those over him. In recent years we have all been told things we judged to be ungodly. We did not submit to the men saying those things. I respect the conviction of Mr. Cartwright to stand for what is right and not take the easy way out.

If there were legal or scriptural reasons to leave the room, I am confident he would have left willingly. Because this action went against the very founding philosophy of United-and there was no policy, bylaw or resolution to support the request of removal-there was no constituted authority. This made the request a personal request by the chairman, and Mr. Cartwright respectfully voiced his resolve to remain in the room.

Although this was an embarrassing situation for everyone, I hope we can see that the door swings both ways. It can bring trust, respect and openness for elders and members, or that door can be shut and ensure that rumor, doubt and mistrust will remain.

We should be thankful that people of conviction have stood up for what is right and will continue to do so.

My sincere desire is that this incident can be used as a stepping stone to those elusive and lofty ideals we espoused at the previous conferences. Please go forward into openness, instead of backward into secrecy, remembering that all of us may not be members of the corporation. But we are all members of God's church.

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