Parliamentary Guidance
Congregation Meeting in Time of Pandemic, Part I


As the pandemic continues to impede regular church operations, one of the areas affected is polity. Congregation Councils have moved to synchronous tele/videoconferencing platforms with reasonable success. Holding a congregation meeting poses additional challenges because of the size of assembly and varying degrees of technical proficiency (on the part of the congregation as institution and on the part of the members). What options do we have?

Since the question of business meetings of the congregation (whether they be of the Congregation Meeting or the Congregation Council) are temporalities of the church, they are legal questions that involve both your congregation’s governing documents (constitution, bylaws, and continuing resolutions) and the laws of the state/commonwealth in which your congregation is incorporated (or resides if not incorporated). The details in your congregation’s governing documents take precedence over anything said here that is based upon The Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Likewise, our congregations are spread across two states and a commonwealth. Those state/commonwealth codes are very similar but not identical. Checking your congregation’s governing documents for variance from The Model is a good idea. Lastly, Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised, latest edition, is the parliamentary authority in most (if not all) our congregations. It includes helpful material for many of the issues we face.

There is a lot to cover in one document. Let’s work backwards, beginning with the possibility of not holding a congregation meeting, and save details about how to hold a meeting for Part II.

Q: Must we hold the Congregation Meeting?
A: Yes, you must call a meeting unless you can claim force majeure, i.e.,  a state of emergency or other disaster (act of God) that prevents you from reasonably fulfilling the constitutional requirement relieves you of the obligation until it is possible to reasonably call the meeting. C10.01 states, “This congregation shall have at least one regular meeting per year. The regular meeting(s) of the congregation shall be held at the time(s) specified in the bylaws…” That’s pretty clear. Some congregations have bylaws that stipulate that the Congregation Meeting will be held on a particular Sunday in January. What if there is a blizzard and the county closes the roads? It should be fairly obvious that the meeting cannot reasonably be held, and the requirement should not be fulfilled. When the emergency is over, the meeting should be held (and one should be reasonable about the date for which it is called---it takes time to plan things). Under this pandemic, it may be that we will not be able to reasonably hold a meeting for a full year (or more…let’s hope not).

Q: Are we in trouble constitutionally if we call a meeting and don’t get quorum because of the pandemic?
A: No, you are not in constitutional trouble. If you call a meeting and the required quorum does not appear, you have fulfilled the constitutional requirement (RONR §40).

Q: If there is no quorum but we have business that has to get done, what do we do?
A: That depends…
Condition 1: The business is not a reserved power of the Congregation Meeting.
Response: There are some things that only the Congregational Meeting can do. *C5.03 enumerates them. Take a look. If it is not on that list, the Congregation Council may handle it in its capacity as the interim legislative authority and board of directors of the congregation.
Condition 2: The business is a reserved power of the Congregation Meeting.
Response: Look to RONR §40. You have some options. One option is to schedule another meeting (adjourn to a specific time and place); this would be a continuation of the same session. Another option would be to take measures to secure a quorum. For example, if you are only short a few people, you can call delinquent members and ask them to come---good luck with that. The final option should be avoided, but, sometimes, it is the best option: take emergency action and hope the body will ratify it later. This last option is particular risky for a multitude of reasons. Think long and hard before using it. Take seriously the discussion in RONR §40 on emergency action.
Q: What about the budget in the absence of a Congregation Meeting?
A: Approving the annual budget is a reserved power of the Congregation Meeting (*C5.03(f)).
Condition 1: The budget that was last adopted had no year attached to it, i.e., there is no year indicated on the proposal and there was no year specified in the motion that adopted it.
Response: That budget remains in force until rescinded, amended, or replaced.

Condition 2: The budget that was last adopted had a year attached to it, i.e., there is a year indicated on the proposal or a year was specified in the motion that adopted it.
Response: Such a budget has a sunset and expires at the time indicated. The good news is: budgets are not strictly necessary (unless you have a rule in your governing documents that require it). In the absence of a budget adopted by the Congregation Meeting, your Congregation Council can make fiscal decisions on a case by case basis (e.g., the bills can be read out at each Congregation Council meeting with votes on whether to pay the bills…Gettysburg Volunteer Fire Department did it this way). At the same time, the Congregation Council can adopt some continuing resolutions or standing rules that authorize the congregation treasurer to pay certain recurring bills (e.g., subscriptions, utilities, insurance, etc.). In essence, the Congregation Council can adopt a provision budget which expires once the Congregation Meeting acts to replace it. As for the clergy and staff compensation, those require no special action because the last adopted budget is considered an employment agreement. Clergy and staff compensation continues at the rate previously approved.
Q: What about elections in the absence of a Congregation Meeting?
A: For Congregation Council members, C12.02 stipulates that they serve “until their successors are elected.” The same is the case for officers per C11.02. If elections cannot be held, everyone stays where they are even if it is beyond their term length or limit. If Officers are elected by the Congregation Council, those elections should proceed as usual. If someone desperately wants off Congregational Council, they are free to resign, and regular vacancy appointment procedures should be followed.

Next, we will take up how to hold a Congregation Meeting because there are some things that are reserved powers of the Congregation Meeting (e.g., calling a pastor). There are not only considerations for safety but also for good order and compliance with governing documents. If you thought this page was fun, get ready for the next.

✠Riegel


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