I have received several questions lately about how congregations can have a congregational meeting when a significant number of their members are still worshipping online. One asked if they could send out ballots for people to mail in, another asked if Zoom meetings are legal, and another was going ahead with an in-person meeting but worried that they were disenfranchising some of their members. Like most polity questions, my answer is “What do your bylaws say?”
The truth is that most congregational bylaws did not anticipate operating in a pandemic. Few among them had provisions for electronic meetings and most were written before Zoom was an option. So does that mean that all of those session meetings, congregational meetings, and presbytery meetings that we have had for the last year are all out-of-order? Yes, but there is a solution to that! In the last article I told you that you could take email votes so long as you validate those actions at the next regularly called meeting. That same principle applies for all of those Zoom meetings too. Once your session or congregation start meeting in a way permitted by your by-laws vote to validate all of the actions that you took electronically for many months.
After that, I encourage you to amend your bylaws to permit electronic meetings in the future. As you do, I recommend that you write bylaws that protect and promote the body’s ability to debate and vote in real-time. That would preclude mail-in ballots and proxy voting but would allow a Zoom or hybrid meeting so long as the church has the technology to integrate the in-person and online participants for meaningful debate. My congregation amended the bylaws in January and I’ve included the text below as an example:
The session and the congregation may meet by electronic means if all members have reasonable notice of the electronic meeting and the ability to discuss, deliberate, and discern the will of God and vote on business items. The quorum for such meetings shall be the same as physical meetings.
With that said, if your congregation is taking actions like selling a building or terminating a pastor that might wind up before either the secular courts or the Permanent Judicial Commission you need to take extra care to make sure that your meeting is in order. The presbytery will be involved in those cases and will help make sure both the polity of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the laws of the State of Louisiana are followed.
Finally, that leaves the issue of disenfranchising members unresolved. The truth is that most congregations do not have the technology to combine online and in-person participants into the same meeting successfully. This is actually one of the challenges that the presbytery is facing as we think about what presbytery meetings will look like later this year. The other issue is that most congregations have members who are either not technologically proficient or who lack reliable access. Those members are disenfranchised when meetings go online while those with medical conditions may be disenfranchised by the return to in-person meetings. While our polity and technology can help us begin to address this, ultimately this is a pastoral issue that sessions need to consider seriously so that all members have an opportunity to participate meaningfully in the life of the congregation.
If you have suggestions for future Clerk’s Corner articles, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May the Peace of Christ be with you,
Rev. Barry Chance, Stated Clerk