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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.

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