In all assemblies there shall be a president whose task it is to present and explain the matters to be dealt with and to ensure that every one observes due order in speaking, to deny the floor to those who argue about minor things or who let themselves be carried away and cannot control their strong emotions, and to discipline those who refuse to listen.
In major assemblies the office of president shall cease when the assembly has ended.
It is plain that there should be someone to guide the assembly and to ensure that the meeting runs smoothly, so that everyone knows what the point under discussion is. Otherwise the result may be the same as that in Ephesus, where “the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” (cf. Acts 19: 32)
With our terms derived from the Latin, we speak of the “officers” of our ecclesiastical assemblies as of the “moderamen,” which means: the brothers who together are responsible for the leading of the meeting, who are the helmsmen whose task it is to keep the ship on the right course. In the ecclesiastical world around us we may hear of a “moderator,” who is the person elected to be the leader for a certain period of time, usually one year. The Reformed Churches do not know of such a semi-permanent official or position.
There must be a brother who chairs the various meetings, whether meetings of a consistory or a classis, a regional synod or a general synod. It would be wrong indeed to call the local minister “the chairman of the consistory.” It would be even more wrong to refer to him as “the chairman of the convening church” when, on behalf of the convening church, he opens a classis, a regional or general synod. One is chairman or president only when there is a meeting and only for as long as the meeting lasts. This applies to consistory meetings as much as it holds true in the case of a classis or a synod. Strictly speaking, a minister is not the “chairman of the consistory,” but only of the consistory meetings.
When a major assembly delegates one of its members to execute certain decisions made, it would not be prudent to appoint its president to each and every such task, for this so easily could give the impression that the brother is president until the next major assembly elects a new one.
Letters going out after the close of the major assembly and signed on behalf of it by its former president and clerk should have the letters “i.t.” behind their name(s). These letters mean: illo tempore (= at that time). If a letter is
sent at some point during the major assembly, the words “hoc tempore” (= at this time), would be appropriate. Any semblance of permanency should be avoided.
His First Task
What is the task of the chairman or president? In the first place the brother is to bear in mind at all times that he is the servant of the assembly. He is to avoid any effort to impose his will and views upon the meeting; he is to be an enemy of all manipulation. He definitely should not be the first one to speak on a matter and should refrain from reacting to what each speaker puts forward before giving the floor to the next one. When he wishes to speak on a matter, he is to take his place in the row of speakers, preferably as the last one, so that all have had an opportunity to give their views without being influenced by him.
The only reason why he speaks first is that he has to present clearly the matter which is to be discussed; but he has to restrict himself to just that. The brothers should know precisely what they are going to discuss and what they are to decide on.
During the discussion he is to ensure that the brothers stick to the point and do not drag all sorts of extraneous matters into the discussion.
Especially when one has just become a minister and has to chair meetings of the consistory, he may be hesitant to interrupt an elderly brother who digresses, for fear of seeming domineering or impolite. However, being a servant of the assembly does not mean that one has to permit everything the brothers want to say. Having been called to preside over the meeting, he has to fulfil his task to the best of his ability and for the benefit of all.
It may be necessary to interrupt a speaker and kindly to request him to confine himself to the point under discussion. It could also be wise to let the brother finish and, before giving the floor to the next one, to say something in this vein: “We noticed that brother A. also spoke about other matters and points, but I must request him and all brothers to avoid digression and to confine themselves in their speaking to the point in question.” This will also prevent the next speakers from being sidetracked and talking about what brother A. said which, in fact, was out of order. If anyone still does, it would be the president’s duty to interrupt him and to repeat his request more insistantly.
The president is further to ensure that everyone observes due order in speaking. This not only means that he must prevent that anyone takes the floor without having asked for and received it. It also means that he must ensure that there is a due order. Matters are not dealt with in an orderly fashion when the chairman asks: “Who wants the floor on this matter?” and then, when brother A. asks for the floor, gives him permission to speak right away. Next, the chairman repeats the question and gives the floor to brother B., who may speak and give his judgment not so much about the point under discussion but more about what brother A. said.
A discussion will be most orderly when rounds are given, and the names of those wishing to speak are written down before the first speaker gets the floor. In the first round the brothers should not (yet) react to what the previous speakers put forward but only give their own judgment and their arguments for it. In the second round the speakers are then permitted to react to what was said in the first round and give further arguments.
If this method is not followed, it will be experienced that brother B. reacts to what brother A. said and that brother A. wants to reply to brother B.’s criticism of his words; brother C. also speaks and criticizes what the brothers A. and B. stated, and so on. Ultimately the brothers no longer see the forest for the trees. There is almost no order, even though no one speaks without having received the privilege of the floor, and the meetings will last well into the night. Much precious time is wasted and much badly needed sleep is lost, while the achievements and results are rather poor.
Generally speaking, two rounds should suffice. If the weight of the matter warrants it, a third or even fourth round could be given, but these should be exceptions, and in these rounds new arguments should be put forward, not the old ones rehashed.
With various official bodies it is customary or even the rule that the chairman does not take part in the discussions and in any case does not take part in any voting, unless there is a tie. Introducing such a custom or rule with respect to the president of our ecclesiastical assemblies would be totally incorrect. At the consistory meetings the chairman has the same rights and the same obligations as any other office-bearer. He is co-responsible with the other consistory members. This means that he not only takes part in the discussion, but also votes on the proposals made, if a vote is taken, that is. And at the broader assemblies the president's mandate, as described in the credentials, is the same as that of any other members of that particular assembly. He has to discharge his duties accordingly.
One more remark about the point of discussion and voting. It is preferable to come to a decision without a vote, simply because the brothers can find themselves in the proposal made. If there are small differences, an attempt should be made to come to such a formulation that all can agree. A compromise among brothers is still a perfectly legitimate solution!
Deny the Floor
It is also stipulated that it is the task of the president “to deny the floor to those who argue about minor things or who let themselves be carried away and cannot control their strong emotions.” It may be helpful to make a few remarks about it, for it does happen rather frequently that there are brothers who argue about minor points or who are vehement in speaking and let themselves be carried away by their emotions.
We all realize that the chairing of a meeting requires much patience, skill, and tact. We also realize that no handbook can be written in which each and
every situation is covered. Further we realize that every person, also each president, is different from all others and that no two situations are alike. Yet a few hints may be given.
No one likes to be interrupted when he is speaking, and no one likes to be told that he is not allowed to continue. It will be wise to let a speaker finish, unless he is so totally out of order or makes himself guilty of such an attitude in choice of words or manner of speaking that a president would not be allowed to let him continue.
Before giving the floor to the next speaker, the president could make a remark along these lines: “What you did and what you said was not right. I must therefore ask the brothers to ignore it, for it was an impure element.” Or: “Brother A., I let you finish, but actually I should have asked you not to continue speaking. If you do this again, I will have to interrupt you and to give the floor to someone else. Please refrain from using such words.”
Also the manner in which the president shows a brother the errors of his ways, should demonstrate that he (as a president) is the servant of the assembly and is willing to give all the brothers full opportunity to have their input in a matter. At major assemblies it is customary that the president lets the vice-president chair the meeting while he himself takes his turn in the discussion.