installment in this series considered the option of not
holding a Congregation Meeting. This installment will consider
options for holding a Congregation Meeting in-person
and electronically. Throughout this
document, The Model
refers to The Model Constitution for Congregations of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2019), and RONR refers to Robert's
Rules of Order, Newly Revised, 12th ed. (2020).
Repeatedly check up-to-date info on threat levels, restrictions, and risk mitigation recommendations.... Have a plan in place to cancel if necessary.
An in-person Congregation Meeting should be no different than any
other in-person meeting during COVID-19. The same advice on safety
and risk mitigation applies. Risk mitigation recommendations,
however, change (and change quickly). Repeatedly check up-to-date
info on threat levels, restrictions, and risk mitigation
recommendations applicable to your locality throughout the
planning process and right up to the moment of the assembly. Have
a plan in place to cancel if necessary.
Whether to hold an in-person meeting is an ethical question, and,
as such, there is an ethical calculus to consider. There is risk
to holding a meeting. There are benefits to holding a meeting.
Undoubtedly, some wag will claim there is no benefit to a
Congregation Meeting...ever...but we must attend to the
temporalities of the church just as any business, government, or
civic organization needs to think about the processing of bills,
facilities maintenance, human resources, etc.. Benefit and
risk, therefore, are held in tension in connection with our risk
tolerance as a congregation and our ability to mitigate risks.
Any congregation might determine that, given its context and
circumstances, the benefit of holding an in-person meeting does
not outweigh the risks even when well-mitigated. Another
congregation might determine that, given its context and
circumstances, it is able to mitigate the risks sufficiently to
tolerate an in-person meeting in light of the projected benefits
of such a meeting. In short, what may be sensible for one
congregation may not be sensible for another.
Determining what congregational business must be done by
the Congregation Meeting instead of what may be done by
the Congregation Council was discussed in the last installment.
With respect to in-person meetings, if the business before the
congregation is something that can be done by the Congregation
Council, there is little reason to go through the trouble of
mitigating risk---make no mistake, it is work to mitigate
risk---in order to hold a meeting that does not need to take
place. Still, there are matters of church business that, according
to our governing documents, only the Congregation Meeting may act
upon. There are also times when it is prudent to involve a body
larger than the Congregation Council in decision making. The
latter is a matter of balance, and, the greater the risk (and
cost) in proportion to benefit, the less reason there is to assume
the risk (and cost). The former, however, is a different matter.
Some things might be properly taken up as emergency actions by the
Congregation Council and later ratified, but other things (e.g.,
the calling/termination of a pastor, disaffiliation from the ELCA,
sale/acquisition of church property, etc.) should never be
left to Congregation Council. In this light, let us look at two
basic options for an in-person meeting, indoor
General Note on Safety: Review Federal, state/commonwealth, and local safety guidelines and restrictions. Some will be quick to point out that, in some civil jurisdictions, churches are exempt from the guidelines imposed by the government on other entities. Even where this is the case, such exemption reasonably applies to the worship gathering; a strong case cannot be made to apply such exemption to the business meeting of the congregation. While some civil jurisdictions have been hesitant to place churches under the same restrictions as other entities, legal exemption should not be taken as recommendation to engage in imprudent activities. To be blunt, the Coronavirus cares no more for your religious liberty than a blizzard, fire, or flood cares. It is prudent to follow the recommendations of your local health department (and other health and safety authorities) applicable to any gathering of people. Remember: Just because something is legal doesn't mean that it's a good idea.
Philipp von Foltz depicts the delivery of a funeral oration from the bema of the Pnyx in Perikles halt die Leichenrede (1852)
Unless your local congregation has an unusual rule specifying an
indoor place for meetings, you may hold your Congregation Meeting
in a parking lot, farm field, picnic grove, ball park, or any
other outdoor venue where you can maintain risk mitigation
practices appropriate to that venue. Some congregations have taken
the call vote on a new pastor in their parking lots. It can be
done. Indeed, there is something wonderfully poetic about the
church (ἐκκλησία) meeting in the open air for business like the
Athenian assembly (ἐκκλησία) in the Pnyx. There are, however,
challenges that need to be addressed.
Be sure to read the general note on safety (supra). If your local health department has provided reasonable risk mitigation guidelines and is not warning people away from outdoor gatherings, consideration of an outdoor meeting is reasonable, assuming scrupulous implementation of applicable risk mitigation measures. As has been said, what is reasonable for one community may not be reasonable for another. Review those guidelines relevant for outdoor meetings and follow them carefully. This may mean masks, distancing, etc..
Here are some things that you should do:
Carefully examine potential venues with thought to meeting requirements.
As required in any deliberative assembly, members must be able to
hear the chair and any others recognized to take the floor. There
must also be adequate provision for members to engage in debate,
raise points, and make motions. This will probably require
amplification. It will also require greater care in arranging how
people make motions, come to a mic, etc.. Carefully examine
potential venues with thought to meeting requirements. Consider
holding a tabletop exercise and even an on-site trial run to make
sure that equipment and protocols work well. Think too, when
selecting an outdoor venue, about ambient noise and distraction.
Voting needs to be addressed with special attention to the
challenges encountered in an outdoor venue. Review your options
listed in RONR §45, "Regular Methods of Voting on
Be sure to read the general note on safety (supra).
With respect to Coronavirus, indoor meetings are riskier than
outdoor meetings but should pose no greater risk than indoor
worship. In short, if your congregation has developed a reasonable
approach to indoor worship consistent with risk mitigation
recommendations and restrictions, you should be able to translate
those measures to your Congregation Meeting. Review those
guidelines relevant for indoor meetings and follow them
scrupulously. This will mean masks, distancing, time limit,
ventilation, etc.. If your congregation has not returned
to indoor worship, your congregation should probably not meet
When holding an indoor meeting, here are some things that you
When caught between the rock and the hard place, it is reasonable to move the meeting to a larger venue.
A common concern is exceeding attendance caps established by either the government or calculated on the basis of physical distancing requirements as applied to the meeting room. To be honest, people don't usually beat down the doors to attend the Congregation Meeting. Think back over past attendance at your Congregation Meeting. For most congregations, attendance is usually less than worship attendance. If your pattern is one of fairly low numbers, do you expect the attendance at your next meeting to be dramatically higher? Does your anticipated attendance fall below your COVID-19 max capacity? If so, you are probably in good shape to hold your meeting as long as you follow all applicable risk mitigation measures. If attendance looks like it is going to exceed your COVID-19 max capacity, you need to think about other options. If, the day of the meeting, more are arriving than your COVID-19 max capacity allows, call off the meeting and prevent further entry into the room. Why? You should not have more people in your space than safety standards dictate. At the same time, you may not allow some voting members in and lock other other voter members out. When caught between the rock and the hard place, it is reasonable to move the meeting to a larger venue.
Keep the meeting as short as possible.
Avoid having people in the same space for more than 30 minutes.
Churchwide Assembly 2019 added a new recommended (but not required) provision to The Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
C10.08. This congregation may hold meetings by remote communication, including electronically and by telephone conference, as long as there is an opportunity for simultaneous aural communication. To the extent permitted by state law, notice of all meetings may be provided electronically.
Unfortunately, too few congregations regularly update their constitutions.
Little did the Churchwide Assembly consider just how useful this provision would prove to be. Unfortunately, too few congregations regularly update their constitutions. Any constitution that was last updated prior to the Churchwide Assembly's 2019 update of The Model will not have this provision. Even those that did update might have opted not to include this recommended provision. Some few congregations may have had enough foresight to create something similar to this and include it their constitutions or bylaws before 2019. You will need to check your governing documents. Two conditions are possible.
A Pedantic Excursus on the Applicability of State/Commonwealth Code
The argument that state/commonwealth law permits electronic meetings even in the absence of C10.08 cannot be sustained in light of RONR and RONR's standing defined in The Model. In the interest of full disclosure, the commonly cited code is here provided.
First, you will note that Md. Code §2-409(a), a. Code §13.1-864(B), W. Va. Code §31E-8-820(b) all apply to the board of directors of an organization. Under The Model, the Congregation Council is the board of trustees (or directors). Furthermore, West Virginia is the odd jurisdiction because of the long history of not incorporating churches. Despite this, we generally defer to the provisions for non-profit corporations. Even so, the rule for the meeting of the general membership (Congregation Meeting) is more restrictive than the rule for the board of directors (Congregation Council).
The question, however, is moot. RONR is the
parliamentary authority defined in The Model,
and RONR states that a bylaw is required to
allow electronic meetings. If a congregation had
adopted RONR as its parliamentary authority
through a mere special rule of order or continuing
resolution (standing rule), a case might be made for
the nullification of RONR's insistence upon an
express bylaw permitting electronic meetings. It would
still be a week case, as organizations have generally
been permitted to constrain themselves.
It is important to remember that the civil codes were written to provide minimum provisions for organizations that might have minimal governing documents. The Model is far from minimal, and its authorization of RONR layers additional rules upon us. If a congregation were to rescind the provision defining RONR as the parliamentary authority---this is not recommended---without adopting another with an equally restrictive provision with respect to electronic meetings, then the state/commonwealth codes would come into full play.
In the absence of such a provision, we default to the parliamentary authority defined in our governing documents, which, for most congregations, is Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised, latest edition. The 12th edition, released in early September, addresses many items related to electronic meetings, but one sentence is particularly important for congregations that have not adopted provision for electronic meetings:
Except as authorized in the bylaws, the business of an organization or board can be validly transacted only at a regular or properly called meeting---that is, as defined in 8:2(1), a single official gathering in one room or area---of the assembly of its members at which a quorum is present.(RONR [12 ed.] 9:30. Emphasis original)
To translate: Without an express provision in either your
constitution or bylaws---RONR, treats both under the term,
"bylaws"---you cannot hold an electronic meeting.
Now that we've said that you may not hold an electronic
meeting, we're going to say that you can...sorta. All that
we are about to say here falls under matters related to doing
business in the absence of a quorum. Those familiar with the
quorum rule know that "In the absence of a quorum, any business
transacted (except for the procedural actions [outlined s.v.,
"Proceedings in the Absence of a Quorum"]) is null and void."(RONR
[12th ed.] 40:6) Reading a little further, we the
The prohibition against transacting business in the absence of a quorum cannot be waived even by unanimous consent, and a notice...cannot be validly given. If there is important business that should not be delayed until the next regular meeting, the assembly should fix the time for an adjourned meeting and then adjourn. If, instead, the members present take action informally in the absence of a quorum, they do so at their own risk. Although the assembly can later ratify their action..., it is under no obligation to do so.(RONR [12th ed.] 40:9)
While the context of this discussion is usually a failure to have
the required number of members in attendance, it may be applied to
any matter related to failure to hold a meeting with a proper
quorum, including venue and notice. So, an electronic meeting,
even with the entire membership present, held in contravention of
the rules preventing an electronic meeting, is a meeting without
quorum. Business conducted in such a meeting is null and void, but
a properly convened meeting with quorum has the option, within
limits, of ratifying actions so taken. Before going down this
path, review carefully the rules related to ratification (q.v.,
RONR [12th ed.] 10:54-57). No action should be taken
"informally" at a non-quorum meeting that cannot be properly
ratified. Furthermore, any action which would be closely contested
should be avoided. This option should only be used for actions
that are so pressing and necessary that they should not wait for a
proper meeting. While we do not recommend holding a technically
illegal meeting, we also understand that a furnace may need to be
fixed before a proper meeting can be held, especially in January.
Certain items of business, however, should never be conducted in a
non-quorum meeting, e.g., the call or termination of new
pastor, the purchase or sale of property, amendment of governing
documents, etc.. Consult with the bishop or any of the
synod parliamentarians before planning a non-quorum electronic