Updated: Jun 28, 2022
Also see the blog entry Tie Votes here: https://www.pbysouthla.org/post/tie-vote
In a previous piece I relayed a story about a congregation seeking to elect a new ruling elder because the pastor had taken a new call and his wife had also been on session. I promised that I would say more about that in a future article and in the meantime I got a question from a congregation about how to handle the fact that a member of session had just been hired by the church and asking how her employment should affect her service on the session. Both of these situations deal with potential conflicts of interest and the right of active members to “participate in the governance of the church and… be elected to ordered ministry (G-1.0402).
Robert’s Rules of Order says that “no member should vote on a question in which he has a direct personal or pecuniary interest not common to other members of the organization” (45:4). Generally this occurs when a decision that is being made will have a financial (pecuniary) impact on one or more of the people making the decision. This situation happens on sessions more than you might expect. In fact, over the years I have been the regularly appointed moderator of nine sessions and it occurred at least once at each of them! Here are just a few that I have seen:
A church employee serving on session when it comes time to approve pay raises;
Hiring a session member’s son to cut the grass;
Moving the church’s bank accounts to a bank where a session member serves on the board of directors;
Updating the church’s wedding fees (when a session member was planning a wedding for his daughter)
Note that while conflicts of interest often involve financial gain that is not the only time they occur. In the case of hiring the session member’s son to cut the grass the session member was not receiving any financial benefit. However, she decided that the family relationship meant that she should stay out of the decision. Recusal, or abstaining from the vote, is generally the best practice in these cases though if there is going to be debate I also recommend that the person who is abstaining take the additional step of stepping out of the meeting until the decision is made so that the other session members can more freely debate the issue.
While Robert’s Rules says that no one should vote on issues where they have personal or financial interest, it also says “no member can be compelled to refrain from voting in such circumstances” (45:4). Further, the Book of Order says that members have the right to participate in the governance of the church! So how can congregations both respect the rights of members and maintain transparent and equitable governance practices? The answer comes down to officer training. When I train new officers, conflicts of interest are part of the discussion along with talking about the budget and the Book of Order. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure on this one. A few years ago when my congregation elected one of our musicians to serve on session, she and I had a conversation about how she should abstain when we were making decisions that directly affected her like giving a Christmas Bonus! She also volunteered to serve on our Fellowship Committee where she was unlikely to be asked to make decisions about her own job. With some good boundaries set, she’s been a great member of the session!
With that said, not everyone has good boundaries and sometimes a member may have numerous conflicts of interest that make it difficult to effectively serve in leadership. That is why some congregations have written or unwritten rules to exclude some people from serving on session like “no two people from the same household” or “no church employees.” The question is, in light of G-1.0402, are these allowed? The answer is, yes, with extreme caution. In 2006, the 217th General Assembly approved an authoritative interpretation that specifically addresses this question. You can read the full text here; however, the short version is that CONGREGATIONS can vote to add language to the bylaws limiting eligibility to hold office and SESSIONS can include language in their personnel policies stating that employment will terminate upon election or installation to office. Both, however, should take care not to inadvertently violate our commitment to Unity in Diversity found in F-1.0403.
Do you have polity questions for the Stated Clerk? Email him! Your question may help educate other clerks in a future Clerk’s Corner!