Is the Sergeant-at-Arms really the Club Bully?

“An official of a legislative or other assembly whose duty includes maintaining order and security”. That is the definition of a ‘sergeant-at-arms‘ given by the online Oxford English Dictionary.

I have long had a very large bee-in-my-bonnet about this Rotary Club Office and look forward to the day the position is dropped never, ever to be seen in Rotary again.

Having travelled around many Clubs I have seen this frankly outdated and embarrassing office being fulfilled in many different ways, but generally always under the guise of “fun and fundraising”.

From what I have witnessed at Club level in Rotary, the Sergeant-at-Arms is pretty much given free rein to say, do and act as he likes (and I have yet to see a female Club Sergeant). Even above that of the Club President – who can often be the brunt of weekly fines during their whole Presidential year.

“Not wearing a tie – £1 in the charity box!”

“Turned up late – £1 in the charity box!”

“Having a vowel in your surname – £1 in the charity box!”

…and so it goes on.

So, what is the position of Sergeant-at-Arms is all about? Many Clubs have them, many don’t. When asked what they thought of the post of the sergeant on @RotaryBlogger’s twitter account, one follower commented, “it helps the lodge members feel at home”. I wonder how much of a throw-back the position actually is, who knows?

Now in posting this blog I appreciate I will open myself up to all the Clubs who will immediately come back and say that their ‘fine system’ generates income for the Club’s charity every week and generating a bit of humour to the Club at the same time. They should certainly be proud of the fact they are raising funds – but fun and humour…really?

If raising funds by way of humiliation and embarrassment is your bag – then full your boots but you’re on your own.

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Some members will still feel uncomfortable being pointed at and laughed at despite the fact it is authorised by the Club Sergeant-at-Arms

But, let’s demonstrate how ludicrous the role of Fine-Master-General is at Club level. Picture the scene…it’s meeting day and one of your existing members brings a visitor along to the Club. This new ‘prospect’ is giving some serious thought to joining Rotary – so all great news.

The visitor (who is a senior manager in a highly successful business) turns up and happens not to be wearing a tie, doesn’t own a tie and frankly has no inclination or need to wear a tie. (Many old-school Regular Rots will be shocked to know that many senior business managers no longer wear ties.)

Next thing he knows is that the Club he is thinking about joining starts to fine some of its internal members for not wearing ties. And the rest of the club find this extremely entertaining. Do they fine visitors he asks himself? As he sheepishly shuffles about in his chair hoping that his naked neck is not on the sergeant-at-arms radar – and at the same time feeling in his pocket for a pound coin, just in case.

Now you may think this is somewhat far fetched as a visitor would never be fined – so to speak. But what about the Rotarian who accompanied them? Yes, I was attending a Club when the Sergeant-at-Arms fined a member for bringing a guest [albeit the previous week] who had not been wearing a tie. I don’t know whether this was factually accurate or just another excuse to squeeze a pound sterling from some Rotarian’s hand – suffice to say I was uncomfortable as a guest at that Club and I remain convinced that so would some other potential new members. So-much-so, it could put them off joining.

I definitely accept – and endorse – that there may be a ‘Stewarding’ role for the Sergeant-at-Arms teams at some events such as Conference and Assemblies. My experiences are that these individuals are genuinely there ‘to help’ – and in all the years I have attended such events, I have yet to see any Regular Rot or otherwise ‘fined’ by any of the senior Sergeant-at-Arms teams.

I see absolutely no place for the ‘other’ role played at a regular Rotary meetings whereby one of the Club members is given the licence to humiliate and demean other Club members in the name of charity and humour.

As a closing thought, first think of the role I have outlined above and the action of the Club Sergeant-at-Arms.

Now instead of using the Rotary Club, let’s make it the playground of your child or grandchild and instead of using a Club member, let’s use a class mate…completely different story now is it not? I think they still call it bullying and harassment at school.

In the same transference process, try theoretically applying the same Sergeant’s principles to any other community group where you are involved – your church; your Scout group; your Community Council. You simply can’t can you? Can you imagine the outcry from the congregation, the parents or the electorate if we started humiliating and berating those in attendance? Well, this must surely demonstrates how stupid, archaic and out-of-place the role of Sergeant-at-Arms within a Rotary Club is.

Let’s hope that in modernising our organisation, we drop-kick the role of Club Humiliate-arian to such a distance that it will never return. Surely those Clubs who raise so much by way of the fines levied by the Sergeant-at-Arms can think a bit creatively to replace any funds lost by making a certain office redundant.

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  Image by Marc-Andre Lariviere by CC