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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dump the Book and Use a Database?

One of the questions I get most often from clerks of session has to do with databases: “Why, in this computer age, do we still have to keep our minutes, rolls and registers in paper form?”

It’s a reasonable question. Databases are wonderfully convenient, and offer powerful search capabilities. Compared to what a program like Microsoft Access can do, the old system of handwritten cross-references in our membership roll books seems positively archaic.

It’s still necessary, though. Remember: minutes, rolls and registers are permanent records, meant to last not just for decades, but for centuries. Generations from now, some historian may be grateful we took the extra time to maintain a hard copy.

Do you doubt what I say? If so, I have a phrase for you to ponder: “Five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks.”

Remember those? Think back to the good old days, when men were men and floppy disks really were floppy. It wasn’t that long ago that floppy disks were the storage medium of choice.

Now, here’s a follow-up question: “Do you have access to a computer that can read one of those things?”

I used to have one of those – about five computers back. I don’t, anymore. In fact, my present computer can’t even deal with those hard-shelled, three-and-a-half-inch diskettes that replaced the old-time floppies. Diskettes of any size – once ubiquitous – are becoming scarce as hens’ teeth. It’s CD-ROMs we’re all using.

Or is it? Ask a bunch of youth under the age of 18 how many music CDs they own, and you’re likely to get “none” for an answer. Today’s kids are the MP3 Generation. They deal in solid-state data storage. Have iPod, will travel.

Up-and-coming on the horizon (and, in many cases, already here) is the technology known as The Cloud. It’s a limitless place somewhere out there on the Internet, carved up into secure, electronic pigeonholes where we can squirrel away computer files to our hearts’ content. Could it be that The Cloud is where our old church records are meant to live, in retirement?

Can you see where I’m going with this? The world of data processing is expanding so rapidly, no one knows where it’s headed. Generations of data-storage come, and generations of data-storage go, but the hard copy remains forever (or nearly so, if we deposit it in a dry, fireproof place).

For storage of records, the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia is the church’s best source of expert records-preservation advice. The PHS strongly recommends we use only “formats that are considered archivally permanent – hard copy (acid-free paper) or microfilm. At present there is no electronic medium that is considered permanent by archival standards.”

If you like the convenience of a searchable electronic record, though, all is not lost. There’s a way to enjoy the best of both worlds. Go ahead and write your minutes using your favorite word-processing program, then use the word processor to print those words onto acid-free paper for inclusion in your record book. (Be sure you use the right kind of ink in your printer, though – I’m told that laser printers and photocopiers produce permanent, archival-quality results, but inkjet printers do not.) Armed with your back-up, electronic copy, you can then use the search function of your word-processing program to find things in the minutes, without having to go back through the books page by page.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Rolls and Registers

“What’s the difference between a roll and a register?” is a question many new clerks ask. Both are similar-looking ledger sheets containing a lot of the same names, and may even be bound together in a single volume. Wouldn’t it be simpler if they were all just combined into one record?

It wouldn’t, because rolls and registers have very different functions.

The difference can be simply described in this way: a roll is a record of names and a register is a record of events.

Information is recorded in church rolls and registers only upon action of the Session. There must be a corresponding notation in the Session minutes for every entry in a roll or register.

The Constitution requires clerks of session to keep the following four rolls:

Active Members Roll – G-10.0302a(2) – This is the most familiar, and the most frequently used. These are the church members who are entitled to vote at congregational meetings.

Inactive Members Roll G – 0.0302a(3)(a) – The best way to think of this roll is as a guide to intensive outreach on the part of Session members. These folks have already made themselves scarce; if the Session doesn’t so something to re-connect with them soon, they’ll be gone for good.

Baptized Members Roll G – 10.0302a(1) (Please note: this is different from the Register of Baptisms, described below.) – These are the children in your congregation who have previously been baptized in your church or any other, but who have not become active members by making a public profession of faith and confirming the promises their parents or guardians made at their baptism. Names should be added to this roll at baptism, or when families with already-baptized children join the church . At confirmation, these names should be removed from the Baptized Members Roll and transferred to the Active Members Roll. In the case of children who are baptized in the church but who never do become active members in their own right, the Session should develop a policy to direct when these names should be removed from the Baptized Members Roll.

Affiliate Members Roll G-10.0302a(2)(b), G-10.0302a(4) – Your church may not have one of these rolls, because not every church has affiliate members. Affiliate member status is a flexible category that’s especially useful in the case of temporary residents who are worshiping in your church during the time they’re in the community. Examples include college students, Armed Forces members stationed nearby and “snowbirds.” Affiliate members maintain their active membership in the community where their permanent home is located.

Besides the rolls, there are five (and possibly six) registers, that record dates when certain things took place:

Register of Marriages – G-10.0302c(1) – all marriages of members and all marriages performed by pastoral staff of the church, whether on or off church property

Register of Baptisms – G-10.0302c(2) – full name, parents’ names and date of birth

Register of Elders’ Ordinations/Installations – G-10.0302c(3) – date of ordination, church where ordained, history of terms of active service, record of removal

Register of Deacons’ Ordinations/Installations – G-10.0302c(4) – date of ordination, church where ordained, history of terms of active service, record of removal

Register of Trustees’ Installations (if the congregation has a separate Board) – date of installation, history of terms of active service, record of removal

Register of Pastoral Staff (G-10.0302c(5) – ministers who have served the church, with dates of service

It's much easier to keep the rolls and registers updated on an ongoing basis, instead of doing it in a last-minute rush once a year, just before the Presbytery's review of Session minutes.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Who Can Be a Clerk?

Most Presbyterians know that a Clerk of Session must be an elder. It's not so well-known that the Clerk of Session need not be a currently-serving member of Session.

Form of Government G-9.0203b says: "The clerk of the session shall be an elder elected by the session for such term as it may determine." It says nothing about having to be a current Session member - which is quite intentional. The language is permissive, either way.

A Clerk who is serving a term on Session concurrently with serving as Clerk is entitled to join in debate and vote on motions brought before the Session. A Clerk who is not an elected Session member is not entitled to vote, and should refrain from joining in debate - although most Sessions offer their Clerk the privilege of the floor in order to address matters related to the smooth handling of Session business.

It's common practice, in many of our churches, for Clerks to be elected on an annual basis, along with other corporate officers such as the Treasurer and the President of the Board of Trustees. Generally, in "unicameral" congregations (where the Session members are also the Trustees), the Clerk of Session is also the Secretary of the Corporation.

Unlike members of Session (who, according to G-14.0222, can only be re-elected once, after which they have to sit an election out before returning), the Clerk of Session may be re-elected any number of times in succession. Many churches in Monmouth Presbytery are fortunate enough to have Clerks who have served for quite a number of years. Long tenure in the Clerk's position is generally a good thing, because knowledge of the church membership and of the responsibilities of the office is a real plus. (As any new Clerk will tell you, there's quite a learning curve associated with stepping into the job for the first time, so it's good to be able to stick around for a while!)

Most pastors will be quick to affirm that a seasoned, experienced and supportive Clerk of Session is one of the greatest assets to their ministry, freeing them from minor administrative details so they can focus on caring for the flock.

So, we've established that the Clerk of Session doesn't have to be a currently-serving Session member. But, is it a good thing? Ultimately, that decision is up to the Session. Sessions that look outside their own membership to find an elder to serve as Clerk often do so because (1) it broadens the range of people they can consider, enabling them to find an elder with just the right skills, and (2) it frees up another seat at the Session table. (Most Clerks have their hands full with their clerkly duties and probably couldn't chair a committee or work group anyway.) Some Session members, upon being elected as Clerk, have actually resigned their position on Session, so as to enable someone else to come on board to fill their unexpired term.