Chapter and Verse…Electronic Meetings and Presbyterian Churches

Can the church do their business virtually or electronically? 

We are now in our something week of NJ lockdown. All our congregations have figured out how to do worship and Bible Studies by ZOOM. Now we need to figure out how to do other work of the church by ZOOM. 

Okay before you go any further, What’s ZOOM. 

ZOOM is a online meeting platform. There are others Microsoft Teams, Go To Meeting, Webex, Skype and others. Each platform is means of meeting “face to face” ( or screen to screen) to have conversations, meetings and even Worship. 

So, can we do our church business by ZOOM or other Online Meeting platforms?

The answer is probably yes and maybe. Conducting church business may not be as easy as calling for a “ZOOM” meeting. Something to consider is that it may be “permissible” to have the meeting but is it always “beneficial” (a little take on 1 Corinthians 10:23)

What you are saying we need to think through virtual meetings? Okay as Presbyterians let’s start with the beloved  Book of Order. Are electronic meetings permitted by the Book of Order?

The Book of Order is silent on this matter.

Again, as Presbyterians are electronic meetings permitted by Robert’s Rules? We do love our Robert’s Rules. 

Roberts Rules states that electronic meetings are permitted if the bylaws of the organization grants permission. (see pages 97-99 in the 11th edition)

We can click off Book of Order and Robert’s Rules. Are electronic meetings permitted by state law? 

Yes. Both NJ title 15 which is for general non-profits, and title 16 which is specifically for churches, allow for electronic meetings unless the organizations bylaws preclude them.

There it is again, Bylaws.

Yes there it is again. Based on the Book of Order, Robert’s Rules and New Jersey Title 15 and 16 electronic meetings are permissible if the permission to do so is granted in the bylaws. This also extends to committees, commissions and other groups which are expressly established in the bylaws.

Basically, you are saying to have ANY meeting it has to be granted in our Bylaws?

Not exactly, It does not extend to committees, commissions and other groups which get their authority elsewhere than the bylaws. Those other groups may set their own rule in their operations manual for how they may meet.

As the Session is established by the constitution of the church rather than its bylaws (indeed, an unincorporated church would still have a session) it may meet according to its own rule.

Great! This means we can have a session meeting by ZOOM ( or some other online platform!) 

Yes, as long as you have it in your manual of operations. Question to explore. Does the session’s Manual of Operations include a provision for electronic meetings. Many do but are often out of date. 

What about a congregational meeting? 

Now we are getting into the tricky part. If the Bylaws do not allow or are silent for the congregation to meet virtually/electronically this becomes a problem. It does need to be in the Bylaws. Our experience so far, we have yet to find a congregation who included meetings of the congregation to be done electronically in their Bylaws.  In just about the majority of situations the church Bylaws can’t be changed except at a congregational meeting. But the congregation can’t meet to change the Bylaws. Oops we have a problem. Do not despair. Keep reading.

Wait. Good News! We are one of the few that the Bylaws do allow for virtual meetings of the congregation? 

Great! Go ahead and follow whatever process your bylaws outline.

What about the rest of us? They Bylaws do not have any provision for electronic meetings for the congregation.  Just did not imagine there would be a time where the congregation couldn’t gather physically for many months.  What are the options? 

Here are some options. This might get technical but in hang in there. 

Before we describe the steps for a Congregational meeting something to consider: 

When you meet in a way other than that which is described in your bylaws it is an extraordinary meeting. Actions taken in an extraordinary meeting shall be ratified in a regular meeting in order to be valid. In many cases when you are able to physically gather the actions taken in extraordinary meetings can be approved on a consent agenda.  Basically you have to go back a give a final stamp of approval.

Got it. Go back and confirm the actions of the virtual meeting. Steps?

The Steps to a virtual Congregational Meeting 

  • Session adopts an electronic meeting policy for the Manual of Operations. An electronic meeting policy can be found on the Presbytery’s webpage. The policy should reflect fairness and access for all who would ordinarily participate in the meeting.
  • Session calls for a meeting of the congregation (via electronically) to act on an amendment to the Bylaws to allow for electronic meetings. Electronic meetings are “special” or “called” meetings and therefore all items of business shall be specifically listed in the call for the meeting. Only items listed in the call may  be considered.
  • Announce the Congregational Meeting stating that the first item of business is to add the following: “ Electronic Meeting:  Electronic Meetings of the congregation, session, and others boards, committees, commissions and teams of the First Presbyterian Church of Happiness are permitted and shall be conducted under the provisions of the Church Manual of Operations.
  • Give notice of the meeting at least 10 days in advance by ordinary means of information distribution for the particular congregation. This could include newsletter, email or bulletin announcements, webpage, Facebook and twitter. Also include the call for the meeting with communications for invitation to worship at least two successive Sundays. This is the online equivalent of the state requirement for the call to meetings be posted on the door to the place of worship.
  • Technology must provide for all participants the ability to speak and be heard and be able to accommodate all who normally be eligible to participate.
  • “Rules of Order and Procedures for Electronic Meetings” policy/guidelines shall be distributed in advance of the meeting.
  • Agenda for meeting and rules reviewed at the start of electronic meeting.
  • Clerk of Session takes minutes.
  • Following the meeting Session sets a date (if possible) when actions of the meeting will be ratified.

Great check list! Is it available as a handout for the session or others?

You will find it at the end as a separate document.

Got the checklist. Got the documents. Ready to Go? What are other concerns…?

As stated earlier the business must be ratified at the next “regular” meeting. It could be a while before the next meeting so first, do not forget to do it.  Second, if the motion to ratify is defeated it will be as though the action did not even happen.  Think that through. If the motion results in things which cannot be easily undone, such as a sale of property of the calling of a pastor, it might be best to wait until an in-person meeting can be called. If it appears that this “higher risk” action needs to happen it would be best for the moderator and the clerk of session contact the Stated Clerk of the presbytery to discuss how best to proceed.

What are the best practices in using ZOOM? Or any other online platform? 

Best practice # 1 approve a policy for “Simplified Special Rules of Order and Standing Rules.”  Yup. That’s a lot of Presbyterian speak. You will find a template/sample at the end.

Best Practice # 2 Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Answer lots of questions.

Best Practice # 3 – Practice with a handful of volunteers ahead of time. The first time you do this needs to be as smooth (not perfect) as possible. Best Practice # 4 – Communicate afterwards what you learned and how the next meeting will be improved.

Anything else that might be helpful?

We also have some helpful technical ideas for running a ZOOM meeting. They are also listed below. Keep checking back to our webpage for updates to these documents. Things change and we learn more. We like to keep things fresh and up to date.

Anything else? This could be a little overwhelming.

Got questions or concerns about any of the process, contact the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, who will walk you through the steps and help you adapt for your particular situation.