A Spiritual Look at Robert's Rules of Order
We all have some familiarity with Robert's Rules of Order, whether we know it or not. The process Motion-Second-Discussion-Vote is the essence of Robert's Rules. We all have been involved in meetings where Robert's Rules got completely out of hand, there were amendments to motions, points of order, and calls for the question. Nobody seemed to know how to proceed and everybody involved seemed to be lobbying for their own pet proposal.

And yet, I've been in meetings where the exact opposite happened. Roberts Rules were applied, gently, and no one person dominated the discussion. In some of those meetings I heard opinions expressed that led me to believe that we'd never agree on anything, but when it came to a vote the vote was unanimous; the discussion had allowed us all to sort out our feelings and come to consensus.

I've come to believe that the reason so many groups continue to use Robert's Rules, is that the rules try to be fair to all concerned while keeping discussion moving to a resolution. The rights of the minority and majority are considered and the discussion isn't allowed to go on forever or wander off into areas that are really not connected.

I pointed out the basic elements of Roberts Rules above:

  • Motion - what we are going to talk about.
  • Second - is it important enough to talk about?
  • Discussion - exchanging ideas on the subject.
  • Vote - making the decision.
There are a few more processes that are also important, because they fill in missing pieces in the process
  • Tabling - what to do when you don't have enough information to decide.
  • Calling the question - everybody's had their say, let's vote.
  • Adjournment - we've talked about this all day, we'll have to decide another time.
  • Amendment - the idea is close, but we need to modify it a bit.

Let me discuss them in a spiritual context: fairness and keeping the discussion moving forward.


A motion focuses the discussion. It says, we are going to talk about a specific issue. It sets the stage: nothing more. It isn't a call to action or a way to control a group. A motion says, for instance, "we are going to talk about finding a new meeting place", so that the member who is unhappy about the way the coffee is prepared or who wants more literature on display, knows that they need to wait until later.

Any member can make a motion at almost any time, about almost anything. In most of the groups I've been in there's some discussion before somebody makes a motion; it is only larger groups where you may need to apply the rules more stringently.

I need to remember that a motion is not personal; just because it doesn't get seconded or the group doesn't decide my way, doesn't mean that they don't like me.


A second is necessary before the group can discuss the motion. Ever wonder why? Ever had a one note Johnny in one of your groups who has one and only one concern and always wants to talk about it. After a while, their motions don't get seconded.

This is fairness to the majority. If there aren't enough people interested in topic to second the motion, then why waste the groups time discussing it?

We've all heard somebody second a motion not because they believe in it, but "just for discussion." That's legitimate too. It represents our innate sense of fairness and gives us a way to talk out the issues.


Ideally the discussion is an exchange of ideas and no-one is trying to convince the other side of his or her point of view. We are all human; I've led groups where I was pushing for an idea of mine and the result was disaster. When I let go of my need to have it my way, and can participate fully in the discussion, listening as well as talking, the results are much better.

I can usually live with a decision if I believe I am heard. That is why it is important for the leader or facilitator to make sure that everyone has a chance to talk. Most discussions have an informal rule that a person who hasn't been heard gets to talk before someone who has already spoken. It's also important to respect the person speaking, even if they are a bit long winded.

The discussion is limited to the motion. The member who is still grumbling about the coffee is Out of Order if he or she talks about coffee while we are considering changing the meeting place. This keeps the discussion from getting derailed and keeps the decision making process moving forward.

In actual practice, smaller groups will start with discussion and then somebody will say "let's make a motion." It is only in larger groups where you need to start with a motion to keep things orderly and to keep focus.


This is the essence of fairness. One person - one vote. No matter how important I think I am, no matter how much I know more than anyone else about the topic (sometimes everyone in the room feels that way), I only get one vote. You would be surprised at the number of times the vote comes in unanimous when everyone has had a chance to participate in the discussion. You would also be surprised at the number of times when one person, just by offering their own take on an issue, was able to change the entire group's thinking.

Usually somebody restates the motion before the vote. That's just for clarity, so I know what my vote means. The secretary or the person who made the motion is usually the person to do this. This shouldn't be taken as an opportunity to rephrase the motion in order to get more votes; that wouldn't be spiritual, would it?


So what do you do when you don't have enough information, or the motion is in the right ballpark, but just doesn't quite get it? You can table or amend the motion. Don't panic, these are actually fairly easy, and if you remember to be spiritual about them, can carry forward the decision making process.

Tabling the motion is just a way of saying, we don't have enough information to decide, or we need to think and pray about this some more before making the decision. We put it down "on the table" for our next meeting. That's all. It doesn't say anything about the merits of the motion, it just says we're not ready yet to decide. It it's your motion, don't take it personally.

A tabled motion is brought up at the next meeting or meetings under Old Business until it is decided.

Calling the Question

Any member can Call the Question. Mostly we say, "let's vote", but some of us (okay it's usually me) are more formal and actually say the phrase, "call the question". Nobody has to second a call, it's just time to vote. I've withdrawn a call sometimes; the group convinces me that there's more to be said.

I've never seen this one abused. I've seen people call the question prematurely, but the group usually decides to go on discussing if it seems important.

For that matter if it really is that important, and the motion is defeated, someone can just make it again. Yes this can get out of hand, but remember the business about seconding?


Any member, at any time, can call for the meeting to be adjourned. It doesn't need a second, but it does need a vote. In my experience, the vote is usually informal. If you get a sense that most of the group wants to continue discussing the motion at hand, or if there's reasonable doubt, then a vote should be taken. Here again, don't take the results personally.


In my opinion this is where Robert's Rules get their bad reputation. Amendments seem confusing and they are. Half the group is still thinking about the original motion and want to talk about its merits, the other half is convinced that the amendment is the only way the motion would work. Then there is the third half (I know that's more halves than necessary; some people are in several groups) who are rolling their eyes and deciding they will never come to another business meeting again. If that's not bad enough, you get people who want to amend the amendment and there's no way to track all of that. Even the guy who insists on bringing his laptop to the business meeting can't figure it out.

The easiest way to handle amendments, and yes this is allowed in Robert's Rules, is to ask the person who made the original motion if they accept that amendment. If they do (and if it is an improvement they usually will), you ask the person who seconded the motion. If they agree, you vote only on the amended motion.

Although it sounds difficult, all of this is really about being spiritual and reaching a decision. The group has learned from the discussion, it's had a chance to think some more about the issue; so maybe the motion could be changed a little for clarity or to include something everyone thinks is important. Maybe there should be a time limit on finding a new meeting place, for instance.

* * *

Robert's Rules of Order have been around a long time and have been used successfully by many groups, large and small. They are almost seem built into our culture, it's almosts automatic, when a group has to make a decision, that they use the Motion-Second-Discussion-Vote Robert's Rules process.

The rules don't have to be difficult as long as you remember that the basic idea is to be fair.