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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Quorum – How Low Can You Go?

One of the decisions Sessions and Congregations need to make under the new Form of Government is what quorum to set for meetings.  Both Sessions and Congregations need to have a quorum for their meetings, and they now have the freedom to determine that number on their own, rather than having to follow a fixed formula specified in the Form of Government.

A quorum, of course, is the minimum number of members who must be in attendance in order for business to be conducted.  It can be expressed either as an actual number or as a percentage of eligible participants. The old Form of Government set the quorum of most Session meetings at one-third of its elders plus the pastor (but not fewer than two), and of congregational meetings at 10% of active members.

A fraction or percentage is preferable to an actual number, because it allows for changes in membership, especially situations in which there are temporary unfilled vacancies.  For example, if a Session of 12 members has set its quorum at 50% of current Session members, but has had 3 members recently resign, its maximum possible attendance would be 9.  That means its quorum is no longer 6 attendees, but 5.  (In calculating a quorum based on a percentage, you always round up to the next whole number.)

Quorum rules can be a real inconvenience.  If, for whatever reason, it’s a bad day for attendance and there’s urgent business to be conducted, a quorum problem prevents the Session or congregation from making any decisions at all.  The meeting can still be convened, and the smaller group can hear reports and discuss whatever they wish, but they can't pass any motions.

It’s usually the clerk’s responsibility to insure that there is a quorum, and to notify the moderator if there is not.  If, at any time, a member of the body thinks a sufficient number of people have departed the room that there is no longer a quorum, that person can make a motion known as a “quorum call,” asking the clerk to count heads and certify again that there is a quorum. If the number in attendance has dipped too low, no motions are in order from that time onward until enough members return.

If, however, no one makes a quorum call, and the clerk does not notice the deficiency and bring it to the moderator’s attention, business continues to be conducted.  If, for example, someone at a Session meeting realizes that when Joe slipped out a half-hour or so before to go pick his wife up from work, the Session no longer had a quorum, and four motions have been passed in the meantime, those motions are not voided as a result. Only motions proposed from the time of the quorum call onward are affected.

So, in deciding on a quorum rule, how low can you go?  The initial impulse may be to set the quorum as low as possible, so as to reduce the likelihood of parliamentary gridlock.  But, not so fast.  Before rushing ahead and setting an extremely low quorum, Sessions and congregations do well to consider the purpose behind quorum rules.

Quorum rules are more than parliamentary red tape.  They are an important constitutional protection that prevents a council from being taken over by a small faction.  Let’s say, for example, snow falls on the day of a congregation’s annual general meeting – not enough to cause the meeting to be postponed, but enough to severely impact attendance.  The congregation has 200 active members, but has previously adopted a quorum rule of 5%, which works out to 10 people.  Only a dozen people show up on the day of the meeting.  Seven of those in attendance, however, come from a single, extended family.  This group has become upset with the pastor and with the direction of the Session’s leadership.  Finding themselves in the majority, they nominate and elect their own slate of officers, sympathetic to their cause.  Not only that, they go on to pass a motion asking the Presbytery to dissolve the pastoral relationship.  When news of these decisions are announced, most church members are horrified, saying that, if they’d known what this group had planned, they would have pulled on their snow boots and gotten themselves to the meeting some way or other – but by then it’s too late.  The action has been accomplished.  The old congregational-meeting quorum rule of 10% would have prevented that disaster.

So, when pondering whether or not to adopt the old quorum rules of 10% for congregational meetings and one-third-plus-pastor for the Session, think of that old party dance, the Limbo.  “How low can you go?” calls the D.J.

“How low can you go?” the partygoers repeat, their excitement at a peak.

They're eagerly watching that lithe young man, the last survivor of the competition.  He looks so skilled, so smooth, as he contorts his body to get under the bar.  Until he falls flat on his posterior.

In parliamentary quorums, as in the Limbo, there's such a thing as too low.

Enough said.

Don’t let yourself get talked into adopting a quorum rule that’s too low.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Do We Need an Inactive Roll?

One of the questions Sessions need to address under the new Form of Government (nFOG) is: “Do we need to maintain an Inactive Roll?”

Unlike its predecessor, the nFOG makes no provision for an Inactive Roll.  However – as has been frequently pointed out – the book is permissive on this point, so there’s nothing to stop a Session carrying on just as it has in the past, maintaining both an Active and an Inactive Roll.  A great many Sessions are planning to do just that.

Under the nFOG as well as the old Form of Government (oldFOG), congregations are assessed per capita apportionments based on the number of people on their Active Roll, as of December 31 two years previously (thus, the 2012 per capita calculation is based on December 31, 2010).  The numbers of names on the Inactive Roll have never entered into that calculation.

The old Inactive Roll can best be described as a list of people the Session believes should be the subject of special outreach, because they have not been participating regularly in the life of the church.  While the precise definition of an Inactive Member has always been left to the Session to determine, the list of member responsibilites in nFOG G-1.0304 (identical to those found in oldFOG G-5.0102) provides general guidance.  Most Sessions I know have followed either formal or informal policies that take note of the regularity of participation in worship, volunteer work and financial contributions.  Sessions have tended, also, to create protected categories of  Active Members who are exempt from these requirements, notably those who are homebound for health reasons or living in medical-care facilities, as well as young people who are away from home temporarily for college or military service.  Those in these protected categories have typically been retained on the Active Roll, despite their inability to be present for a time.

For those Sessions who decide to continue using an Inactive Roll, here are some Frequently-Asked Questions about how to do it under the nFOG:

1. Where is the Inactive Roll maintained?

Short answer: Wherever the Session decides.

Longer answer: Because it is no longer a constitutional requirement, those who review the Session’s minutes, rolls and register on behalf of the Presbytery will no longer be looking to see that there is an Inactive Roll section in the church’s roll book.  There is nothing to stop a Session from continuing to keep an Inactive Roll in the same roll book as before, it they so desire; it’s just that the Inactive Roll will no longer be reviewed by the Presbytery.

With respect to the required church rolls – the rolls of Baptized, Active and Affiliate members – these must be maintained in hard-copy form on archival-quality paper.  It’s all right to use a computer database for the convenience that affords, but there must always be a current, hard copy available, stored in a place where it will be safe in the event of fire or natural disaster.

2. What are the rights of Inactive Members?

They are no different than the rights of anyone else who has been baptized and who comes in off the street to attend worship: “To participate in the life and worship of the church and receive its pastoral care and instruction” and to receive the Lord’s Supper (nFOG G-1.0404).

There are two specific areas of involvement, however, that the nFOG limits to those on the Active Roll:  “participating in the governance of the church” and “being elected to ordered ministry” (that is, being elected as Deacons or Ruling Elders).   That means only Active Members may vote or have the privilege of the floor in congregational meetings (although, if someone other than an Active Member requests to speak, the congregation may always vote to extend that privilege).

3. What is the church’s obligation to care for Inactive Members?

The Session should feel obliged to extend the same pastoral care, instruction and invitation to the Lord’s Supper it offers to the general public (nFOG G-1.0404).  Beyond that, it's up to the Session to decide how it interprets its further responsibility to those individuals, under the Great Ends of the Church (nFOG F-1.0304).

4. Are those persons counted for per capita purposes?

Clearly, no.

5. What if someone on the Inactive Roll wants to become an active member?

Such a person should petition the Session, who will decide what preparation is appropriate for reception by reaffirmation of faith (nFOG G-1.0303c) – either on a case-by-case basis, or according to Session policy.  This process will likely include some discussion of the responsibilities of membership outlined in nFOG G-1.0304.  It shall require some form of “examination” by the Session, followed by reception “at a regularly scheduled service of public worship” in which “it is appropriate for them to reaffirm the commitments made at Baptism, to make public again their profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to express their intention to participate actively in the worship and mission of the church” (nFOG/oldFOG W-4.2004).

Now, if a person has done any of these things recently, or if a person’s name has been removed from the Active Roll based on an error, it may be that the Session will want to handle some of these requirements less formally.  The important thing is that the Session members do assure themselves that the general principles are being followed.

6. What does our Session need to do, with respect to the names on the Inactive Roll as of July 11, 2011, when the nFOG took effect?

Short answer: Nothing.  Those people weren’t Active Members before, nor are they Active Members now.  They couldn’t vote in congregational meetings nor be elected to ordained office then, nor can they now. Although the oldFOG defined “Inactive Members” as one of several categories of membership, in fact that was an empty distinction, since there was no right or privilege that pertained to them that did not also pertain to any other Christian who might happen to show up in worship.

Longer answer: There’s nothing the Session needs to do. What the Session has, essentially, is a list of names.  How Session members decide to use that list to guide their efforts to care for and invite those people back into active involvement in the church is up to them.

If the Session does decide to continue an Inactive Members Roll, and to keep referring to those people as “members,” they may certainly do so.  They could do this by means of a simple motion, stating that all those whose names were listed on the Inactive Roll under the old Form of Government are part of a continuing Inactive Roll they are setting up under the new Form of Government.  That distinction, however, will have meaning only within the local church, and will not necessarily be intelligible to Presbyterians elsewhere.

As they ponder these matters, Session members may want to consider the emotional impact on some people of being considered “not a member” of the church, as opposed to simply “not an active member.”  Most of us can think of people who ceased coming to worship and stopped contributing years ago, who may even live halfway across the country, who continue to refer to our congregation as “my church.”  A few of these people may take comfort in saying of themselves: “I may be an inactive member, but I’m still a member.”

That wasn’t meant to happen even under the oldFOG, since the Inactive Roll was clearly set up as a temporary way-station for names of people the Session was intending to reach out to in special ways, before taking timely action to remove them from the roll altogether.  A great many Sessions, however, did something different.  They left names on the Inactive Roll indefinitely, since there was no real incentive to remove them – thereby creating a sort of Grade-A and Grade-B membership.  Where that’s been the case – and I have to be honest and say it’s true of the church I serve as Pastor – the change could possibly create some pain among a few people who haven’t especially minded thinking of themselves as Grade-B members, as they learn they can no longer do so.

7. I hear of a Session who’s created a “Friends” list, for casual adherents who haven’t become members.  Does the nFOG let us do that?

Absolutely.  The new book is permissive, not restrictive.  You may already have a functional equivalent of a “Friends of the Church” list, but not know it, if you regularly mail or e-mail a newsletter out to prospective members and to others who are not on the membership roll.  In fact, this could be a creative solution to the very dilemma we’ve just been discussing, of longtime Inactive Members who may feel hurt that they’re “no longer members.”  Calling them “Friends” is more accurate, and may even make them happier.

8. What should we do if a letter arrives from another church, asking us for a letter of transfer for someone who’s no longer an Active Member?

There’s no difference from former practice.  It’s up to the Session how to handle this – whether to go through the motion of restoring such people as Active Members and then immediately transferring them, or to write back and say, “We thank you for notifying us and celebrate with enthusiasm their decision to join your church, but in fact we have already removed their names from our roll.”

It really makes no difference to the other church, because the sole function of a letter of transfer is as a courtesy to your church, so you may know it’s time to remove transferred members’ names from your roll.  Members sometimes speak of “transferring my letter” – as though every church keeps a file-drawer of letters somewhere for each member, all ready to go – but this is a misunderstanding.

9. What other steps should a Session take?

Adopt a policies manual, in which these and other questions are answered.  Then, as brother Luther advises, “sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger still.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rebalancing Ruling-Elder Representation

With the valued assistance of Ruling Elder Bill Faust, I have completed the calculations for the required rebalancing of the numbers of ruling-elder commissioners to Presbytery, in order to achieve parity between teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders.

The last time we did this, there were a small number of additional ruling-elder slots to allocate among the churches, but that is not the case this time around.  Two factors have influenced this.

First, there has been a modest decrease in the number of teaching elder members of Presbytery, due to a number of factors - the most significant being that many churches have been eliminating associate-pastor positions in recent years.

Second, with the Mission Council's encouragement,we have factored into the rebalancing calculation only the numbers of honorably retired ministers who live in New Jersey and are in reasonably good health.  Those who live out of state or who are experiencing health problems are of course still members of Presbytery and welcome to participate with voice and vote at any meeting, but it hardly seems accurate to ask churches to elect additional ruling-elder commissioners to offset their numbers if they are not likely to be in attendance.

Presbytery By-Laws call for certain ruling elders to be members of Presbytery.  These are elders "who are serving as officers of the Presbytery, as members of the Mission Council, the Administrative Division Steering Committee, the Ministries Division Steering Committee, or as members of the Presbytery’s Board of Trustees, for the duration of their term of office."  That means that, as we started to name additional ruling elder commissioners, we turned first to those serving on these named committees.

When we ran the numbers, we discovered that the number of additional ruling-elder slots we'll need in 2012 corresponds exactly with the numbers of ruling elders serving on those committees.  That means there are no additional ruling-elder slots to allocate among the churches.

Beginning with the January meeting of Presbytery, therefore, the number of ruling-elder commissioners from the churches will be based on each church's December 31, 2010 membership, as follows:

2001-3000 members (Toms River): 5 ruling elders
1001-1500 members (Red Bank): 3 ruling elders
500-1000 members: 2 ruling elders
All other churches: 1 ruling elder

We realize there will be some individual ruling elders who have had voice and vote in Presbytery for the past couple of years but will now be losing that privilege.  For those who are interested, there is a way to possibly get your voice and vote back: just tell the Nominating Committee you're interested in serving on one of the above-mentioned permanent committees.  If you are nominated and elected, you will be able to participate as before.

If you are already serving on one of those committees,  your Session should NOT elect you as a commissioner.  There's no need.  You already have full privileges of the floor at Presbytery meetings.  It's better for the Session to elect someone else - both to give another person a chance to participate, and to keep our teaching-elder/ruling-elder parity as close to 50-50 as possible.

We'll be sending out letters to Clerks of Session in the next few weeks, advising you of the exact number of commissioners your Session is entitled to elect - although you can probably figure it out for yourself in the meantime, by using the chart above.

Thanks for your understanding.  If you have any questions about this process, please feel free to get in touch with me.