Polity for Councils
A Crash Course for Congregational Councilors

If you would like to have "Polity for Councils" held in your conference or cluster, contact +Riegel.

This course is provided by the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod. This page is provided as syllabus, outline, and resource hub for what is an in-person workshop.

You will not become an expert in this one session. It is, however, the goal of this session to provide an orientation to
  • the duties of the council,
  • the scope and extent of the council's authority, and
  • the powers of the council to execute its duties.

Outline for the day

Optional download (PDF) for Session I

The Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2022),
Annotated by +Riegel for

Congregation Councils
Session I

Session I is for everyone (council members, officers, and clergy). During this session we will look at
  • the nature of the Congregation Council,
  • the form of the Congregation Council,
  • the sources of the authority of the Congregation Council,
  • the extent and limits of the powers of the Congregation Council, and
  • the duties of the Congregation Council.

Think of this as the more formal session. It will be pretty much lecture format, though participants are more than welcome to ask questions. Simple questions will be answered. Really complex questions or questions that are congregation specific may deferred to Session II.

This will take us up to dinner. We will take a break in the middle of it. To some extent, how long this takes depends upon the participants, but the expectation is 2—2½ hours (including the break). Feel free to stand up at any time, walk about, take care of basic human needs at any time.

Dinner Recess

There is no formal dinner planned. We're going to set aside 45 minutes or so (based upon the mood of the attendees) to allow folks to scatter for chow. Informal conversation over dinner is welcome. If you are not sticking around for Session II, feel free to call it a day and head home if you like.

Session II

Session II is for those who want to stick around to workshop specific questions. In other words, anyone content with Session I and not feeling a need to workshop anything is free to stay or go as the mood strikes.

Here is your chance to ask for detailed clarifications, bring up issues specific to your congregation, bounce ideas of other, and explore the dark and scary places of council polity. The bishop may even bring some case studies.

We'll go as long as the group likes or until the bishop turns into a pumpkin.

Why Should I Care?

The alternative is death and destruction.

              Cain and Abel
Albrecht Dürer, Cain Killing Abel, 1511

Hobbes described the condition of humans in a state of nature, that is, without a civil society, as a "war of all against all."* Without some sort of civil society, that is, apart from some sort of agreement among humans about how resources are to be acquired, held, protected, and used, each will try to acquire resources, possess them, and use them through violence and cunning. The formation of civil society has given rise to states (civil governments) and voluntary associations. When either reaches a certain size or complexity of situation, the development of constitutional polity begins. A constitution is a form of contract between members of an association whereby each agrees to surrender certain personal prerogatives to the association and submit his/her will to that of the association in return for participation in decision-making processes, certain defined protections and benefits, and hoped for long-term advantages (tangible and intangible). Humans have done this because the alternative is less than appealing, and we continue to do it because the benefits, to our thinking, outweigh the costs. Throughout our lives we make decisions about which voluntary associations we want to join (or avoid or leave) based upon the degree to which the benefits of that association stack up against the costs. Constitutional voluntary associations codify those costs and benefits, providing greater security (in terms of knowing or reasonably predicting the costs and benefits in advance) than we might have in moving from one temporary alliance to another.

There are good reasons to care about our polity in relationship to the Congregation Council.

  • If we are going to have certain things that require cooperative effort and resources (human, fiscal, and material), you have to have a way to collect, aggregate, steward, and expend them.
  • As those entrusted under a particular constitution with certain responsibilities for the common good, we are constrained by that constitution and accountability to the body as a whole.
  • Living in a civil society as a voluntary association entails accountability to the laws of the land.

*Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, Præfatio (1642): "...conditionem hominum extra societatem civilem, quam conditionem appellare liceat statum naturæ, aliam non esse quam bellum omnium contra omnes; atque in eo bello jus esse omnibus in omnia."

What Is a Congregation Council?

What a council is depends upon your how you are looking at it.

What is it?
As seen by whom
Board of directors
The state
State/commonwealth code
Small deliberative assembly (board-sized)
Robert's Rules of Order
Interim legislative authority
The church (i.e., the ELCA)
Constitution of the ELCA

Immediately, someone might object that this is not a very spiritual way of looking at things. A lot depends upon what one means by spiritual. Indulging the point, let us consider that the church is pneumanthropic. The church is both spiritual and, at the same time, very human. The church is spiritual (pneumatic) in that the Holy Spirit forms the church in faith. We say that the church is the creature of the Spirit (creatura spiritus). The Holy Spirit, however, forms this church out of human beings, thus human beings are the material cause of the church. Those things that are natural to the human being are therefore natural to the church. The church is therefore human (anthropic). As such, the church has human needs as well as spiritual needs and operates both spiritually and humanly. We need the Word of God, and we need working plumbing. For those things that relate to the spiritual, we can use the term spiritualities of the church. For those things related to the more human aspects, we can use the term temporalities of the church. These two things interpenetrate each other in that the spiritualities need the support of the temporalities (it's hard to hear the Word of God if the microphone does not work) and decisions about temporalities are often guided by the spiritualities (although it would make the church money to rent the fellowship hall out to a meth lab, it's not really consistent with what we believe). Nonetheless, our focus in this course is on the temporalities.

Council vs.
                Congregational MeetingBasis for Authority

Some boards of directors are boards of non-stock and non-membership corporations. These are often self-perpetuating boards, that is, the board elects its own members. In the ELCA, a Congregation Council is a board of directors of a membership non-profit corporation (or non-profit association if not incorporated), that membership corporation/association being the congregation. Under our polity, the Congregation Meeting is the highest legislative authority in the congregation. The Congregation Council is the interim legislative authority, meaning it is the decision-making body that governs between meetings of the Congregation Meeting.

Our congregations are direct democracies that employ interim limited representative democracy. The Congregation Meeting is a direct democracy. Every voting member is enfranchised and has rights within the body to participate in the decision-making process. Between those meetings, those elected to the Congregation Council by the Congregation Meeting govern, but this council is significantly limited in its authority, scope, and power. Sometimes one sees an organizational chart in which the council sits as a box above the Congregation Meeting, but it would be more correct to place the Congregation Meeting above the Congregation Council if one is trying to portray the power structure of the congregation.

The state codes assume that boards of directors have pretty much all the authority, scope, and power, the stock holders and members doing little else but electing the members of the board of directors. A required provision in our Model Constitution for Congregations makes it clear that the Congregation Meeting has reserved powers (i.e., powers that the only the Congregation Meeting can discharge) in several areas. Some of these are such that they cannot even delegate them to the Congregation Council or any other board or committee.

It is worth reviewing these powers reserved to the Congregation Meeting.

*C5.03. Only such authority as is delegated to the Congregation Council or other organizational units in this congregation’s governing documents is recognized.  All remaining authority is retained by this congregation. This congregation is authorized to:
a.    call a pastor as provided in Chapter 9;
b.    terminate the call of a pastor as provided in Chapter 9;
c.    call a minister of Word and Service;
d.    terminate the call of a minister of Word and Service in conformity with the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
e.    adopt amendments to the constitution, as provided in Chapter 16, amendments to the bylaws, as specified in Chapter 17, and continuing resolutions, as provided in Chapter 18;
f.    approve the annual budget;
g.    acquire real and personal property by gift, devise, purchase, or other lawful means;
h.    hold title to and use its property for any and all activities consistent with its purpose;
i.    sell, mortgage, lease, transfer, or otherwise dispose of its property by any lawful means;
j.    elect its [officers][,] [and] Congregation Council, [boards, and committees,] and require [them] [the members of the council] to carry out their duties in accordance with the constitution[,] [and] bylaws[,] [and continuing resolutions];  and
k.    terminate its relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as provided in Chapter 6.

"Only such authority as is delegated to the Congregation Council or other organizational units in this congregation’s governing documents is recognized," provides the basis of authority for the Congregation Council. One has to read through the governing documents to find out what they are, but this is the summary statement. At the same time, the provision makes it clear what cannot be delegated.

What Are the Duties of the Congregation Council?

Most of the duties of the council are listed in Chapter 12 of the Model Constitution for Congregations. Note well, the provisions found in this chapter are not required provisions. A congregation may adopt them as is (filling blanks and choosing between options as the congregation sees fit), adopt them in modified form, or adopt something very different.

C12.04. The Congregation Council shall have general oversight  of the life and activities of this congregation, and in particular its worship life, to the end that everything be done in accordance with the Word of God and the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The duties of the Congregation Council shall include the following:
a.    To lead this congregation in stating its mission, to do long-range planning, to set goals and priorities, and to evaluate its activities in light of its mission and goals.
b.    To seek to involve all members of this congregation in worship, learning, witness, service, and support.
c.    To oversee and provide for the administration of this congregation to enable it to fulfill its functions and perform its mission.
d.    To maintain supportive relationships with the rostered minister(s) and staff and help them annually to evaluate the fulfillment of their calling or employment.
e.    To be examples individually and corporately of the style of life and ministry expected of all baptized persons.
f.    To promote a congregational climate of peace and goodwill and, as differences and conflicts arise, to endeavor to foster mutual understanding.
g.    To arrange for pastoral service during the sickness or absence of the pastor.
h.    To emphasize support of the synod and churchwide organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well as cooperation with other congregations, both Lutheran and non-Lutheran, subject to established policies of the synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
i.    To recommend and encourage the use of program resources produced or approved by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
j.    To seek out and encourage qualified persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel.
C12.05. The Congregation Council shall be responsible for the financial and property matters of this congregation.
a.    The Congregation Council shall be the board of [trustees]  [directors] of this congregation and, as such, shall be responsible for maintaining and protecting its property and managing its business and fiscal affairs. It shall have the powers and be subject to the obligations that pertain to such boards under the laws of the State of _____________, except as otherwise provided herein.
b.    The Congregation Council shall not have the authority to buy, sell, or encumber real property unless specifically authorized to do so by a meeting of this congregation.
c.    The Congregation Council may enter into contracts of up to $ _______ for items not included in the budget.
d.    The Congregation Council shall prepare an annual budget for adoption by this congregation, shall supervise the expenditure of funds in accordance therewith following its adoption, and may incur obligations of more than $ __________ in excess of the anticipated receipts only after approval by a Congregation Meeting. The budget shall include this congregation’s full indicated share in support of the wider ministry being carried on in collaboration with the synod and churchwide organization.
e.    The Congregation Council shall ascertain that the financial affairs of this congregation are being conducted efficiently, giving particular attention to the prompt payment of all obligations and to the regular forwarding of mission support monies to the synod.
f.    The Congregation Council shall be responsible for this congregation’s investments and its total insurance program.
C12.06. The Congregation Council shall see that the provisions of this constitution[,] [and] its bylaws[,][and the continuing resolutions] are carried out.
C12.07. The Congregation Council shall provide for an annual review of the membership roster.
C12.08. The Congregation Council shall be responsible for the employment and supervision of the staff of this congregation.  Nothing in this provision shall be deemed to affect this congregation’s responsibility for the call, terms of call, or termination of call of any employees who are on a roster of this church.
C12.09. The Congregation Council shall submit a comprehensive report to this congregation at the annual meeting.
C12.11. The Congregation Council shall normally meet once a month. Special meetings may be called by the pastor or the president, and shall be called by the president at the request of at least one-half of its members. Notice of each special meeting shall be given to all who are entitled to be present.
C12.12. A quorum for the transaction of business shall consist of a majority of the members of the Congregation Council, including the [senior] pastor or interim pastor, except when the [senior] pastor or interim pastor requests or consents to be absent and has given prior approval to the agenda for a particular regular or special meeting, which shall be the only business considered at that meeting. Chronic or repeated absence of the [senior] pastor or interim pastor who has refused approval of the agenda of a subsequent regular or special meeting shall not preclude action by the Congregation Council, following consultation with the synod bishop.

There are, however, other duties not listed in Chapter 12 but found in other chapters of the Model Constitution for Congregations. Some of these other duties are in similarly non-required provisions of the Model Constitution for Congregations, meaning your congregation might not have the exact same list. They include

  • power to call a special Congregation Meeting,
  • power to call a special meeting of the Congregation Council,
  • power to elect its officers (if provided for in the congregational constitution),
  • power to appoint committee members not appointed by the congregation,
  • power to appoint the members of the Audit Committee, and, of course,
  • those powers vested in any board under the parliamentary authority of the congregation (which is probably Robert's Rules of Order) and not otherwise constrained by the governing documents of the congregation.

Some duties are in required provisions. They include

  • power to admit petitioners into confirmed membership in the congregation (and implicit power to remove from membership),
  • power to initiate a process for the termination of a call for reason of disability,
  • power to consent to the appointment of an interim pastor and negotiate service parameters for the same,
  • participation in the discipline of members,
  • right to propose amendments to the governing documents of the congregation, and
  • right to review and comment on proposed amendments to the governing documents of the congregation (de jure or de facto depending upon the method by which the amendment was proposed).

This authority, scope, and set of powers are in service to the purposes of the congregation, these purposes being outlined in required provisions of Chapter 4 of the Model Constitution for Congregations.

Form Follows Function

Well, it would be nice to say that this is always true. It might be more honest to say that we have certain preferences for specific forms of government because we have experience with those forms. When it comes to the Congregation Meeting and the Congregation Council, the lion's hare of the relevant provisions are not required provisions of the Model Constitution for Congregations. It is probably wise to stick with the substance of the non-required provisions, making those minor adjustments that serve your congregation unless your congregation can devote serious thought to the economies and diseconomies presented by alternative forms. That said, very small congregations and very large congregations might not find the non-required provisions as serviceable as might be hoped. Before heading down the path less traveled, your congregation leadership should have a conversation with someone with a good sense of parliamentary law and constitutional economics.

One can scarcely have had much experience in deliberative meetings of Christians without realizing that the best of men, having wills of their own, are liable to attempt to carry out their own views without paying sufficient respect to the rights of their opponents.
 --- Henry M. Robert*

Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty.
 --- Henry M. Robert

It is difficult to find another branch of knowledge where a small amount of study produces such great results in increased efficiency in a country where the people rule, as in parliamentary law.
--- Henry M. Robert

*US Army Corps of Engineers, Historical Vignette 038 - An Army Engineer Brought Order to Church Meetings and Revolutionized Parliamentary Procedure.
Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised, 10th Ed., p. v.
Modus Operandi

The council is a deliberative assembly. As such, its general method of operation is a matter of parliamentary law as codified by the parliamentary authority of the congregation, which is probably Robert's Rules of Order. Before the groaning begins, let us consider two things.

  • At the heart of RONR is the double-headed principal that the minority has a right to be heard and the majority has the right to act. This is really the heart of any good parliamentary manual, but RONR has proven its worth in this regard. Where these two things are not realized it is either the result of ignorance with respect to the provisions of RONR or intentional refusal to follow them. Where RONR is used well and appropriately, one might still find oneself on the losing side of a vote, but this is less likely a problem with RONR than a failure to convince others.
  • RONR acknowledges that small deliberative assemblies (e.g., committees and small boards) can probably do their work more informally most of the time. There are, however, times that things need to be done formally. Knowing the difference is the trick.

There are other rules of order out there, and a congregation may amend its constitution to employ a different parliamentary authority. Generally speaking, RONR is probably the good choice in that it is the most widely known parliamentary handbook in circulation, but a congregation that finds it too cumbersome is free to look for simpler rules of order.

For our purposes in this session, we don't want to get into a detailed study of RONR. That double-headed principal mentioned above, however, is worth noting. How does everything you do as a council embody it?

  • Does each member get to voice his/her argument? Or is the minority opinion stifled before it can be spoken?
  • Does the majority get to act? Or are they held hostage by a few members?

It is also important to understand the culture of the particular congregation and each council. Some councils want to get things done quickly and go home: the less debate the better. Others want to thrash everything out in minute and excruciating detail. When most everybody shares the same culture, it probably doesn't matter which way it goes, but get a mix of preferences on the council, and you are may be heading for trouble unless you figure out how to live together.

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There are a few things that every council would benefit from becoming more familiar with:

  • how to work the agenda and flow of business;
  • how to commit/refer;
  • how to handle reports;
  • how to frame a motion;
  • how to amend a motion; and
  • how to vote.

If you want some parliamentary aids, you may examine what's available in the appendices of the Pre-Assembly Bulletin of Reports.

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West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod, ELCA
309 Baldwin St., Morgantown, WV 26505
304-363-4030 ♦ office@wv-wmd.org

Last update: 18 April 2023