FROM THE PLM STATED CLERK: Congregational meeting options of during the pandemic

Presbytery of Lake Michigan

Clerks of Session
Pastors with congregations
Church Administrators

Greetings presbytery members:

Fall is quickly approaching and many congregations have contacted me to ask about options for holding congregational meetings to elect church officers and to approve terms of call for pastoral staff.  A number of viable options are available to congregations. I will host a Zoom meeting on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 at 11 a.m. for those who have questions and would like to speak with me directly. (The link details may be found at the end of this message.) Please plan to join me for a discussion.

The information that follows was taken from an Advisory Opinion provided in March 2020 by the PC(USA) Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II.

May a congregation or council take actions to prepare for decision making as needed under emergency circumstances such as a natural disaster or a public health order forbidding social gathering?

Yes.

May a congregation hold a congregational meeting via electronic meeting technology?

Yes. A congregation may provide by rule for the meeting of a congregation by electronic meeting technology. The rule needs to be adopted as an amendment to the congregation’s bylaws prior to implementation. The congregation should make sure that all members who are available as a quorum are able to participate in the discussion and vote.

A congregation may provide by rule for a quorum for the meeting. An example of such a rule is: The congregation may meet by electronic meeting technology if all members have reasonable notice of the electronic meeting and  ability to discuss and vote on business items. The quorum for such a meeting is [x] members.

May a session hold a meeting by electronic meeting technology?

Yes. A session may provide by rule for the meeting of the session by electronic meeting technology. The rule needs to be included in the congregation’s bylaws or the session’s manual of administrative operations. The session should make sure that all session members who are available as a quorum are able to participate in the discussion and vote. A session may provide by rule for a quorum for the meeting.

An example of such a rule is: The session may meet by electronic meeting technology if all active elders have reasonable notice of the electronic meeting and have the ability to discuss, deliberate, and discern the will of God and vote on business items. The quorum for such a meeting is [x] active elders or at least two active elders and one moderator, temporary or called.

If it is not possible for a congregation or session to meet via electronic meeting technology, how can the congregation or session take actions?

It is also constitutional for a congregation or council to provide by rule in its bylaws and/or manual of administrative operations for the appointment of an administrative commission as might be needed for the congregation or council to function under emergency circumstances such as a natural disaster or a public health order forbidding social gatherings (Authoritative Interpretation, Minutes, 2010, Part I, pp. 331–33, Item 05-13).

The rule should take into account the responsibility of the council and congregation to give full expression to the rich diversity of the church’s membership and provide for full participation and access to representation in decision-making and employment practices (Book of Order, G-3.0103).

A council may approve a group of members as the core membership of an administrative commission if it annually reviews the composition of that group for its representational sufficiency and by recorded action augments it as needed in order that the administrative commission can more truly act as and for the council.

This rule should be clear as to the type of emergency or order that triggers the rule and should have a definite ending point for the administrative commission.

Any rule which appoints an administrative commission should be clear as to the powers that the congregation or council has delegated to the administrative commission. 

An example of such a rule is:

In the event of an emergency or public health order forbidding social gatherings, the session has appointed an administrative commission made up of one teaching elder moderator, either temporary or called, and two active elders. These appointed members of the administrative commission will be reviewed annually. The administrative commission will have the full power of the session [and the trustees] and may take action acting as the session [and trustees]. In the event that the session is able to hold a duly called special meeting with reasonable notice and quorum, either in person or by electronic means, the administrative commission will cease its work and the session will resume its powers.

What if the congregation or session does not have a rule that provides for a meeting by electronic meeting technology?

A couple of things could happen:

  1. Although the meeting is not constitutional, in the case of an emergency, the session could meet by electronic means with reasonable notice of the electronic meeting, quorum, and at least one moderator, and take actions required to address the emergency or public health order. Reasonable notice may vary according to the emergency and the needs of the community. These decisions will need to be ratified at a later properly called meeting, regular or special.
  2. Until a quorum of the session is able to meet, the administrative commission appointed by the session in the event of an emergency or public health order forbidding social gatherings could begin to function.

What happens if the congregation, session, or administrative commission takes emergency action at a special meeting without the required notice?

Robert’s Rules states that, if, at a special meeting, action is taken relating to business not mentioned in the call, that action, to become valid, must be ratified (see pp. 124–25) by the organization at a regular meeting (or at another special meeting properly called for that purpose). (RONR, Chapter IV, Section 9, Particular Types of Business Meeting, Special Meeting, p. 93)

Motion to Adopt and Motion to Ratify

The motion to ratify (also called approve or confirm) is an incidental main motion that is used to confirm or make valid an action already taken that cannot become legally valid until approved by the assembly. Cases where the procedure of ratification is applicable include:

  • action improperly taken at a regular or a properly called meeting at which no quorum was present;
  • action taken at a special meeting with regard to business not mentioned in the call of that meeting
  • action taken by officers, committees, delegates, or subordinate bodies in excess of their instructions or authority; (RONR, p. 124).

Congregations and Sessions also have the option of meeting outside provided that no more than 100 people gather using safety protocols of social distancing by at least 6 feet and wearing masks.  A plan similar to the one the Presbytery used to change the bylaws to allow for electronic meetings.  A special meeting is called stating specifically the reason for the meeting.  Explain to the congregation that only a quorum needs to be present.  The meeting can be recorded for viewing by other members at a later time or livestreamed.

Yours in Christ,

Fran Lane-Lawrence

Transitional Co-Leader/Stated Clerk

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