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Michigan parliamentarian keeps GC in order

When bishops presiding at General Conference need advice to keep things running smoothly, they turn to Maurice S. Henderson, a longtime professional parliamentarian.

Michigan Conference Communications

“Conferencing” is at the heart of the Methodist movement, and the need for some form of order was evident from the beginning. Initially, John Wesley himself set the rules. Today, they are set by the General Conference, supported by Robert’s Rules of Order. During General Conference plenary sessions, bishops preside over business and keep order. But when bishops need advice, they can consult a professional parliamentarian.

The parliamentarian at this General Conference is a Michigander. Maurice S. Henderson was born and raised in Detroit and still resides in Redford. His mother was a police department secretary, and his father worked on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company.

Left to right: Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton, General Conference Parliamentarian Maurice S. Henderson, and Bishop David Bard. ~ photo courtesy Bishop David Bard

He belonged to his high school chapter of Business Professionals of America, where he first learned parliamentary procedure basics and gained experience presiding at chapter meetings. “When we knew we had to use [parliamentary procedure], I took it seriously and taught myself a lot,” Henderson said.

Henderson, who holds degrees from Western Michigan University and Wayne State University, kept studying parliamentary procedure on his own but also sought out mentors. He took and passed exams for various levels of certification with the National Association of Parliamentarians.

He eventually reached the top level — professional registered parliamentarian. He has held various offices in the national association, serving as president from 2011 to 2013 – the first African American to hold that office.

Henderson describes himself as a “parliamentary geek” with a deep understanding and love for rules of order. He has many years of helping organizations run meetings right, especially when conflict arises. This is his first big United Methodist event. Past clients include the National PTA, the Michigan Nurses Association, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Church of the Nazarene.

Henderson, who knows all about Robert’s Rules of Order, had to do a crash course in the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order for General Conference. He believes these rules “provide a structure which allows voices to be heard by carefully balancing the rights of individuals, the majority and the minority.” He understands his task as assisting the bishops in their role as the presiding officers of the General Conference, making sure that everything is “fair and above board, putting everyone on the same playing field,” because without clear rules of order, he knows a conference can descend into chaos. Along with helping bishops in plenary sessions, Henderson was on call last week to advise delegates chairing legislative committees.

When asked how he came to be in this unique position, Henderson described an in-depth process of interviews with a team of bishops, including Bishop David Bard. Then he met with Rev. Gary Graves, the General Conference Secretary, before the final selection was made.

In a day when some persons of faith believe Robert’s Rules hamper the movement of the Holy Spirit and are therefore inappropriate for the work of the church, Henderson said, “Being a person of faith, I believe when people really understand the church’s Rules of Order and Robert’s Rules, they understand that the rules make sense and that they allow everyone to have a voice. Decision-making by consensus might work for small groups with unlimited time, but for a conference the size of this one, it’s unrealistic to think the body will come to consensus. A good, fair process for decision-making works better.” In a letter to the bishops, he said, “If we keep the delegates and the rights they are granted in mind, we can’t go wrong.”

Henderson is thrilled to have this job: “First, because I am a person of faith and I benefit from attending an event like this; I am enriched while I am there. Second, I guess I am a parliamentary geek, so I love having the opportunity to use my knowledge for the work of the church.”

Rev. Joy Barrett, pastor of Chelsea UMC, is the Secretary of the Michigan Annual Conference. This is her eighth time serving as a clergy delegate to the General Conference. She has seen how a well-understood set of rules of order can assist the church in making important decisions. Regarding the parliamentarian’s role, she said, “The rules of order actually create the space where the Holy Spirit might be able to move in meaningful ways. The two go hand-in-hand. The parliamentarian helps assure that can happen.”

John Wesley never referred to himself as a “parliamentary geek,” but given his love of order, he and Maurice Henderson would have much in common. Mr. Wesley would be pleased to see the balance between good order and openness to the spirit. He would affirm the blending of the work of the rules of order and the Holy Spirit as United Methodists go to conference once again.

Sam Hodges, a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News, contributed to this story.

Last Updated on April 30, 2024

The Michigan Conference