Updated: Jun 28, 2022
The Clerk of Session of one of our congregations contacted me a few months ago with a problem. The congregation does not currently have a pastor and the session had taken a vote with three votes in favor and three against. “What do we do?” the clerk asked, “We don’t have a pastor to break the tie.” Several years ago I was appointed to serve as Moderator of Session for another congregation after their pastor took a new call. The pastor’s spouse had been on session (more on that in another article) and so one of the items on the agenda was to ask the Nominating Committee to find a suitable replacement. It was a small congregation and as I looked around the room I saw that they had six members of the session present so I asked, “How many people do you ordinarily have on session?” They explained to me that they had decided years ago that they should always have an odd number of session members so that they never wound up with a tie vote. Both of these congregations have some fairly common misunderstandings about how our polity works.
In our polity there is no such thing as a tie vote. The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity state that “Decisions shall be reached in councils by vote, following opportunity for discussion and discernment, and a majority shall govern” (F-3.0205). Read that again, it says that a majority shall govern. If a session has six members and the vote is three to three the vote failed to reach a majority. The vote did not tie, it failed. For that reason congregations also do not need to elect an odd number of members to the session to avoid ties. In fact, doing so may actually violate the Book of Order which says that “Election shall to be classes as nearly equal in number as possible” (G-2.0404). While it certainly sometimes happens that a session has an uneven number of members in its classes because of a resignation or death, ordinarily congregations should strive to elect the same number of members to each class.
Since there is no such thing as a tie the problem presented by the lack of a pastor to “break the tie” is mostly settled. However, that question reveals another misunderstanding of our polity as it relates to the role of the pastor on the session. The Form of Government states that “The session is the council for the congregation. It shall be composed of those persons elected by the congregation to active serviced as ruling elders, together with all installed pastors and associate pastors. All members of the session are entitled to vote” (G-3.0201). Pastors and Associate Pastors are members of the session and are entitled to a vote on all matters. When I am mentoring candidates for ministry and newly ordained pastors I tell them what my Polity Professor told me in seminary, “You should vote on everything. If you don’t you’re not doing your job. If you only vote to break ties then every time you vote half the session is mad at you. There is no such thing as a tie anyway.”
Finally, I’d like to address one bit of related polity that is also often misunderstood. When a congregation does not have an installed pastor, the presbytery will appoint someone to serve as Moderator. For a while this will probably be a pastor from a neighboring congregation but eventually a church without a pastor will hopefully hire a temporary pastor (we have several names for these including Interim Pastor, Stated Supply, and Temporary Supply). Like with Installed Pastors, appointed Moderators and Temporary Pastors do not break ties. The reason, however, is different. It is because they do not have a vote. One of the foundational principles of our polity is that only those who are elected by a group can make decisions for that group (F-3.0106). Appointed Moderators and Temporary Pastors are not elected by the congregation like an Installed Pastor is and as a result they cannot vote to make decisions for that congregation. Nevertheless, they do play an important role in moderating the meeting and helping the session discern the will of Christ.
Do you have polity questions for the Stated Clerk? Join the Clerk of Session training on August 22 or email him! Your question may help educate other clerks in a future Clerk’s Corner!