Thursday, July 29, 2010

Is your congregation ready for the Revised Form of Government?

Earlier this month the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to submit an amended version of the Revised Form of Government (called nFOG by some) to the Presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes.

During a break in the work of the Assembly Committee on the Form of Government Revision an observer voiced a concern to me that I summarize in the following hypothetical:

After adoption of the Revised form of Government, the session of a PCUSA congregation discerns that in order to participate in God's mission, a specific step must be taken that requires an affirmative vote of a congregational meeting. A member of the congregation is unhappy with the decision made by the rest of the congregation, and goes to court challenging, among other things, whether the members of the congregation had adequate notice of the meeting and whether a quorum was present. He argues that because Revised Form of Government gives the congregation the authority to determine its quorum and this congregation has not adopted a rule stating its quorum, the congregation needed to have at least half of the membership present in order to have a quorum. He also argues that the session had a responsibility under the Revised Form of Government to give adequate notice of the meeting, and that the way the session publicized the meeting did not meet that vague standard of adequacy.

What is the best way to head off this problem?

(a) The session should never let the congregation vote on anything with which anyone might disagree.

(b) The session's presbytery should overture the General Assembly to propose an amendment to the Form of Government that would specify what the quorum is for every congregational meeting, and determine what adequate notice would be for every congregation in the PCUSA.

(c) The session should call a congregational meeting at which the congregation could agree on its quorum and what notice of a meeting would be adequate.

(d) Stop the nFOG! The session should exert all of its efforts to ensure that the Revised Form of Government never gets adopted and they never get put in a situation where this hypothetical situation might occur.

(e) Maybe you have ideas of your own.

And now, as our vice-moderator would say, "Set phasers to stun ... we await results."

(a) If you selected (a), you are partly right that the session needs to do some groundwork (and sometimes a lot) with the congregation before taking important actions. But if the fear of displeasing a single member of the congregation will prevent the session from leading the congregation to join in God's work, this session may be too risk-averse to attempt anything.

(b) If you selected (b) you might do well to revisit the history of the PCUSA's trial with this very approach to specifying the quorum of a congregation. Only two years after the 1984 Reunion the church adopted the rule expressed in the current Form of Government as a replacement for a formula that specified the quorum of every congregation - a rule that was not working for many congregations.

(c) Option (c) makes the most sense to me, and is in accord with the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution to the 218th General Assembly (2008), in which it said "the right to establish a quorum for meetings of the congregation is assigned to the congregation itself by G-7.0305. It is not a power assigned to the session, or to any other governing body."

(d) If you chose option (d), you may have many valid reasons for opposing the Revised Form of Government, but you failed to recognize that it is a red herring in this hypothetical. If your congregation has not acted to determine its own quorum, you are just as vulnerable to a challenge in court under the current Form of Government as under the Revised Form of Government.

Let's take a look at what our current Form of Government at G-7.0305 actually says:

The quorum of a meeting of the congregation shall be not less than one tenth of the members unless the particular church upon application to the presbytery shall obtain the consent of the presbytery to a provision for a smaller quorum. A congregation by its own vote may fix a higher quorum. No meeting of fewer than three members shall be considered a congregational meeting.

Your disgruntled church member could go into court and argue that the first sentence does not say what the quorum is, but what it is not. If the congregation has never voted to state what its quorum is, how would you plan to show the judge that your quorum is not what this one church member claims it is?

(e) If you chose option (e) you may have other ideas, and I am eager to hear them.

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1 comment:

Neal Lloyd said...

Good observation and analysis. Just the kind of effort we need in these coming months to help folk understand the implications of our current FOG so that the nFOG seems less threatening. Thanks!