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

Monday, June 13, 2011

Parliamentary time bombs?

There's been some discussion, lately, about how local congregations ought to transition to the new Form of Government, that's due to take effect on July 10, 2011. I've been hearing, in particular, about one alarmist critique of the nFOG, that suggests there are a couple of hidden parliamentary time bombs in there that are all ready to blow local churches sky-high if somebody doesn't get in there like MacGyver and defuse them.

In particular, say the alarmists, there are two things local churches need to do, pronto:

1) Set the quorum for congregational meetings, and
2) Establish the most recent edition of Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised as the parliamentary basis for congregational meetings

Everyone's agreed that, because the nFOG doesn't explicitly adopt these two standards in the case of local churches, congregations do need to vote on these two items at some point, if their By-Laws don't already address these issues. The question is whether this is a matter of such urgency that Sessions need to rush to call a congregational meeting prior to July 10, when the nFOG takes effect. The doomsday scenario - raised by partisans who are no friends of the nFOG and have been opposing it - is that if congregations allow July 10th to come and go without formally adopting the 10% quorum that was in the old book, then they will for all practical purposes be unable to ever meet again, because they'll need to roust out 50% of their membership in order to conduct any business.

The problem with that argument is that it's self-contradictory. If we accept that, after July 10th, the default 50% quorum from Robert's Rules applies to congregational meetings, but we also accept that Robert's has no constitutional basis for congregations after July 10th - unless and until congregations specifically act to adopt it as such - then, how can Robert's impose a 50% quorum from the get-go?

If a congregation can't, or doesn't want to, meet before July 10th, then all it has to do at its first meeting is to adopt a rule stating that, in accordance with former practice, the quorum for a congregational meeting is 10%. Then, it can go on to adopt a second rule, stating that Robert's Rules is the parliamentary authority for all matters not addressed by the Constitution of the PC(USA).

There's actually an easier way to handle this, though, with a single motion (as I describe below).

Furthermore, this is a classic case in which "Jenkins' Law" applies. The late Fred Jenkins was, at one time, our executive presbyter here in Monmouth Presbytery. Fred - who was both an attorney and a minister - left Monmouth to go on to fame and glory as Director of the Office of Constitutional Services in Louisville. Fred had a question he habitually asked, in certain situations in which a council (what we used to call a "governing body") was about to get itself tied up in knots. His question was: "Who's going to sue?"

Let's say a congregation's By-Laws make no mention of either quorum or Robert's Rules - or, worse yet, that a congregation doesn't have any By-Laws at all. Let's also say that congregation tarries, and doesn't hold a meeting until after July 10th. If it makes a good-faith effort at that time to set a reasonable quorum (especially the 10% quorum that, as years of minutes will show, they've been following since forever), and then goes on to establish Robert's as its parliamentary authority (which many successive Books of Order likewise show has historically been our steadfastly reliable guide), then there's not a court in this country, ecclesiastical or otherwise, who's likely to throw a wrench into the works because of such a technicality. And besides, as Fred would say: WHO'S GOING TO SUE, anyway? Who even cares about such a nit-picky point of procedure, when a congregation that takes the steps I've outlined above is doing the most reasonable thing, based on years of past precedent, in order to get through a transitional time?

Now, on to the solution...

Here's what I think all clerks of session ought to do, as we make the change:

1) Find the By-Laws, blow the dust off them, and see what they say about quorum and Robert's Rules. If they already address these matters, you're home free.

2) Failing that, at the next Congregational meeting, have someone propose this motion:

"With respect to any item that the new Form of Government leaves to be set as policy at the discretion of the Congregation, which was formerly included as part of the 2009-2011 Form of Government as amended by the 219th General Assembly (2010), that item is temporarily adopted as Congregational policy until superseded by further action of the Congregation."

Presto! You've just re-established everything that was in the old Book of Order with respect to how congregational meetings operate.

I wouldn't advise keeping that action in place forever, though. If you do, you'll eventually be carrying around a tattered, yellowed copy of the 2009-2011 Book of Order, with all the pages falling out, along with your latest copy of the nFOG. The intent of the change is that every council (formerly "governing body") of the church will go through a careful, deliberate process of writing a policies manual. (From the Presbytery, we'll be sending out guidelines and suggestions in the coming months to help you do so.) This enabling motion is just to buy some time to go through that process in a measured, unhurried way.

The Session ought to to adopt a similar version as well:

"With respect to any item that the new Form of Government leaves to be set as policy at the discretion of the Session, which was formerly included as part of the 2009-2011 Form of Government as amended by the 219th General Assembly (2010), that item is temporarily adopted as Session policy until superseded by further action of the Session."

If you want to, you can add a sunset clause to the end of the motion, saying that it remains in effect until, say, December 31, 2012. But, that's optional.

I think this is a reasonable way to proceed. If you're still concerned about it, of course, you could always suggest to the Session that they call a special congregational meeting before July 10. There's still plenty of time to do that.

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