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When the chickens were asleep, the fox slipped into the hen house

Roberts Rules of Order

If you are in an organization and need to know more about Robert's rules click here. There is a new chapter in the book especially for HOA's.

By Robert McConnell Productions

This article is not about farming or protecting your chickens, but about protecting your rights as a member of an organization.  Ignorance is not bliss. It is slavery.  Those who sleep on their rights have no right to complain about their loss when they wake up because they were not vigilant. So therefore, be awake, be diligent and be informed.

Disclaimer: This analogy with chickens and foxes to people is not meant to be derogatory to any person. It is just an analogy. That is all. It is also not meant to put down any member unselfishly serving in their church or any organization.

          There are many tragedies today, but to us there is no bigger tragedy than members who are asleep in their organizations.  These sleepers are snoring away when the fox slips in to steal their freedoms and rights. And, something more detestable is when the chickens co-operate with the fox and give him their rights under the disguise that it is good for them.  This is happening in our country and many organizations today.

          Robert McConnell Productions was recently asked to help a church group who wanted to remove their pastor from the pulpit.  They had evidently tried some years before and failed. But this time they believed they had the votes and were determined to succeed.  They followed their bylaws in having six members sign a petition for a special meeting.  Giving notice for the special meeting was precisely followed.  They engaged an impartial person to moderate the meeting.  But because the members were ignorant of their rules and basic parliamentary concepts, they failed again. 

          One reason was because in 2012, evidently after the first attempt to remove him from office, this fox came up with “helpful rules” to govern a special meeting. Of course the chickens believed him.  They did not realize that he was planning for the next time someone would present a motion to remove him.  Instead his “helpful rules” would help him!  The rules included that if the pastor did not preside, he would choose the person to conduct the meeting. The rules also limited member’s discussion by allowing only two members to speak for five minutes each on the “pro” side and two members to speak on the “con” side for five minutes each.  Then the debate would end and a ballot vote would be taken.  No other members were allowed to speak.

          This certainly makes a special meeting short and to the point, but it deprives the assembly of the right to get all the information needed to make a wise decision.  Special meetings are usually called because something very important has arisen or the organization needs a special meeting to handle an issue so important that it needs its own meeting. This is why debate should not be limited like this.

          So let’s look at what these rules did for the meeting.  In Robert’s Rules when the president, or in this case the Pastor, has a motion to remove him, he must step down from the platform. Then either a Vice President, or a chairman pro tem elected by the assembly, presides.  This keeps impartiality.  By allowing the pastor to choose his own representative takes away impartiality.  However, our parliamentarian was able to prevail when the pastor came to talk to him.  After their very brief chat, the pastor decided to let the members vote for which moderator would preside—his or the committee’s. His candidate won.  

          The policy rule which limited debate to 10 minutes on each side, a total of 20 minutes, limited the information that could be presented.  Members were not allowed to ask questions.  They could only listen to what was said by each side.  Members were not allowed to add any information that they may have had.  It was completely two-sided—those who were selected to speak on each side.  Their rules also included that those who spoke had to inform the pastor prior to the meeting who their speakers were.  This of course is complete tyranny.

          What our parliamentarian found most interesting however when working with this group, was that they had not taken into consideration these policy statements in planning what they wanted to do in controlling the meeting.  In fact they did not know the rules existed because they had not read their policy manual.  It wasn’t until our parliamentarian was shown a letter written by the pastor where he mentioned these rules that the alarm bells went off.  It was only after our parliamentarian pointed out to the members that the meeting had to be conducted by these rules, did the chickens squawk, “That can’t be done. It’s not in our bylaws.” 

          So let’s look at this.  These policy statements were basically “special rules of order” adopted by the members that said they were going to conduct special meetings different than the parliamentary authority.  This is a legitimate action under Robert’s Rules of Order. Now were they adopted by a two-thirds vote?  Probably not. But the members did vote on them and accepted them as the rules of the special meetings.  That night at the meeting members protested that their rights were taken away but of course in their ignorance they did not know how to correct it at the meeting.  The committee members that our parliamentarian worked with were told how to do it, but they choose not to make the motion to “suspend the rules” because their moderator had not been elected to preside. And if they did make the motion, it may not have been adopted by the two thirds vote required or even understood by the members.

          So the remedy for special rules of order, which are of parliamentary nature, was this:  suspend them for that meeting.  Our parliamentarian recommended that a motion be made “to suspend the policy rules on conducting special meetings for this meeting and conduct the meeting according to Robert’s Rules.”  If adopted, this would have allowed more members to speak and ask questions. It also would have allowed the members to vote on any proposed limitations to debate.   But the chickens were either ignorant or too discourage to stop the carnage of that meeting. 

Because our parliamentarian was an observer at the meeting, he did not stay to hear the results of the ballot vote. But it was obvious that the fox stayed in the pulpit. (This was confirmed the next day when he was told the results of the vote.)


Moral of the story:  When you give up your rights by falling asleep or by "letting George do it," you wake up to find you have lost your rights to do something you want to do.  So when new bylaws or standing rules are proposed, don't adopt them until you have considered what rights you may be giving up.

Lessons Learned

As always it is often easier to have hindsight than foresight.  But those who have our book, Robert’s Rules of Order Simplified and Applied will find an entire section on Meeting Strategies.  This chapter was included in the book to show members and presiding officers how to prepare for meetings and then every motion is illustrated with a motion or action to counter it.  This study of this section will certainly give members the tools they need to stand up to tyranny at meetings.

The following page references will be cited from this book, 3rd edition.

Now let’s look at three lessons learned from this meeting.

Lesson 1:  The motion to “Suspend the Rules” (pp. 120-122)

Robert McConnell recommends:  If someone is trying to pull this foxy trick in your organization, that is passing special rules of order to keep a tyrant in power, you can fight back this way: move to suspend the rules.  Here is why.  Special rules of order can be undemocratic because they stack the deck in favor of one side. If the rules are suspended, then it defaults to Robert’s Rules which allows for a much fairer process.

Lesson 2:  The motion to “Extend Debate” (pp. 91-93)

Robert McConnell recommends:  If they don’t vote to suspend the rules, you can still make the motion to “extend the debate.” This needs a two-thirds rising vote.  It insures that both sides have enough time to present their side of the issue. They can extend the time limit for each member to speak and the number of times each person can speak.

Lesson 3:  the Ballot Vote (pp. 54-56)

Robert McConnell recommends:  When the vote is taken on who will preside, have a ballot vote if possible.  (In a large assembly this may not work quickly).  On a highly charged controversial issue about who should be in the chair, many members do not want to stand up and be counted especially if the president or pastor is prone to retaliation.  They also don’t want the other side to see them as an enemy.  A ballot vote allows each member to vote from the heart instead of trying to please others.


Remember there is nothing done that can’t be undone.  Sometimes undoing things may not be able to happen at the meeting and may take some time, for example amending bylaws without previous notice.  But every wrong done can be made right if you know the right procedures for doing so.  Finally, no one is ever helpless before the fox! If you know your rights and defend them, you can prevail. 

© Robert McConnell Productions 2015