Quorum in a Congregational Meeting

Questions have been raised about the impact of the possible adoption of the proposed Form of Government on the establishment of a quorum in a congregational meeting. The passage in the proposed FoG that is pertinent here is proposed G-1.0501, which states, in pertinent part:

“…Congregations shall provide by rule the quorum necessary to conduct business.”

This is a change from the current requirements of G-7.0305, which state:

“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.”

Many congregations have bylaws, articles of incorporation, or administrative manuals that specify a quorum for congregational meetings. If such a document is in place, it should in my opinion continue to govern the congregation’s practice and constitute the congregation’s “provision by rule” for a quorum.

Many congregations have bylaws or other documents that specify a quorum by means of reference to the Book of Order, G-7.0305. If such a reference is in place, it is my opinion that the most reasonable interpretation would be that the current language of G-7.0305 (one tenth of the membership, not less than three) is the intent of the congregation in establishing its rule. The congregation would be wise to make this intent explicit at the next congregational meeting, but that meeting itself would be governed by the G-7.0305 quorum.

Some congregations, however, do not have bylaws, articles of incorporation,  or administrative manuals and therefore have no specification regarding quorum apart from the language of current G-7.0305. In the absence of such congregation-specific language, the provisions of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (10th e., hereafter, RRONR) enter the picture.

RRONR, sec. 3 (p. 20) says of a quorum: “The requirement of a quorum is a protection against totally unrepresentative action in the name of the body by an unduly small number of persons. In both houses of Congress, the quorum is a majority of the members, by the United States Constitution. Such a quorum is appropriate in legislative bodies but too large in most voluntary societies. In an ordinary society, therefore, a provision of the bylaws should specify the number of members that shall constitute a quorum, which should approximate the largest number that can be depended on to attend except in very bad weather or other unfavorable conditions” (emphasis added).

RRONR, sec. 40 (pp. 334-35), further defines the establishment of a quorum by relating it to the ability of the deliberative body accurately to assess its membership, if the body has not otherwise specified a quorum. Two pertinent paragraphs:

“2) In organizations such as many churches or some societies in which there are no required or effective annual dues and the register of members is not generally reliable as a list of the bona-fide members, the quorum at any regularly or properly called meeting consists of those who attend….

“4) In any other deliberative assembly with enrolled membership whose bylaws do not specify a quorum, the quorum is a majority of all the members.”

It seems to me that if a congregation’s membership rolls are not necessarily an accurate list of the “bona-fide” membership of the congregation, paragraph 2 above might be argued to apply. But this argument clearly would not stand if a congregation’s rolls are relatively accurate and up-to-date; in this case paragraph 4 with its requirement of a “majority of all the members” would more reasonably be the standard.

This means that there is wisdom in holding a congregational meeting prior to 10 July 2011 to establish a quorum, perhaps by adopting the “one-tenth, but not less than three” language of current G-7.0305, or some other language agreeable to the congregation. Certainly this is the safest course of action if a congregation believes that the “majority of all members” standard is too burdensome.

Nonetheless, historical precedent and an appreciation of the spirit as well as the letter of RRONR have some value. Since 1986, the Book of Order has specified “one-tenth but not less than three.” It is reasonable to assume that, in a good-faith effort to meet the requirements of proposed G-1.0501, a congregation could establish its quorum rule in a meeting governed by quorum requirements that have been in place until the adoption of the proposed new Form. In other words, a congregation that is honestly seeking to meet the requirements of G-1.0501 (if it is adopted) but that cannot do so prior to 10 July 2011, might legitimately argue that “the largest number that can be depended on to attend” (RRONR, p.20) is accurately reflected in the congregation’s historic practice of recent years.  Since that practice will have been defined by the “one-tenth but not less than three” rule, that rule could be reasonably argued to be the proper quorum until the congregation is able to adopt another statement.

Paul Hooker, Presbytery of St. Augustine

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3 responses to “Quorum in a Congregational Meeting

  1. In other words, if nFOG passes, no problem. Just bend the rules to do what is convenient, and nobody will care?

    Or maybe claim that you’ve been sloppy in keeping the membership roll, so you don’t really know how many members you have, so you can use the more permissive method to determine a quorum? How sad!

    It would show more integrity to live with the letter of the law, and adhere to a true quorum.

    It would be even better to never approve nFOG in the first place, with all of its big and little boobie traps that are yet to be found!

    The last thing we need right now in this season of great turmoil is “fruit basket upset” with our rules and procedures.

  2. If there are any “booby traps” surrounding the issue of the proposed new Form of Government, it isn’t that rules are being haphazardly changed (“fruit basket upset”) according to the narrative into which critics like Mr. Berkeley try to force the proposal. The traps are in the faulty reasoning of “issues” being raised against it, such as this one about congregational quorums. The gaping trap here is another example of people not actually knowing our current polity, and the spill-over effect it has on the perception of what the proposed Form of Government provides.

    The mistake made by those raising the specter of 50%+1 quorums is the contention that the current Form of Government, at G-7.0305, establishes the quorum for a congregational meeting, and the proposed new Form of Government takes away all quorums. Neither is accurate.

    G-7.0305 is about the minimum percentage that a congregation’s action to establish its quorum must meet or exceed (unless the congregation received an exception from presbytery to have a lower quorum). G-7.0305 does not in itself establish a quorum standard for a congregational meeting; the congregation’s subsequent action does. This is clear from how the General Assembly interpreted G-7.0305 in 2008 (Item 04-20): “The Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends to the General Assembly that 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.” (The GA approved the ACC’s recommendation.)

    (At issue in Item 04-20 was the action of a presbytery to require a meeting of a congregation wishing to withdraw from the PC(USA) have 75% of its active membership present, effectively changing the quorum from whatever percentage in use by the congregation to this much higher figure.)

    At some point, congregations, guided by G-7.0305), should have determined what their quorum will be – at the 10% minimum, higher, or lower (with presbytery’s approval). All of the congregations I have served had this action expressed either in the minutes of the congregational meetings or in their bylaws. Either way, the action of the congregation becomes its standing policy until changed by the congregation, as the congregation alone is responsible for setting its quorum. I would argue that even if a congregation does not enter such an action into its minutes or amend its bylaws, but uses the minimum standard for its quorum, that this is a 25-year “common-law” relationship that establishes what the policy/practice of the congregation is. That is, everyone knows what the necessary quorum for the congregation to meet is.

    What, then, does nFOG do to these established quorums? All G-1.0501 does is remove the defined, system-wide minimum percentage for a congregational quorum, and entrusts each congregation to establish “by rule” what its quorum will be. Note that the minimum standard is removed, not the responsibility of the congregation to establish its own quorum. nFOG neither alters nor abrogates the congregation’s already-established quorum under the current Form of Government!

    By providing this flexibility, nFOG entrusts that congregations might make alterations to their current quorums if a different percentage would work better for them, one that also protects the congregation against unrepresentative actions being taken in its name. (It also removes the extra bureaucratic step of seeking a presbytery exemption to make this change.) One4 potential example: perhaps a congregation in a resort or college setting would benefit from this flexibility, as certain times of the year might find fewer active members in town and available to meet. Regardless, I suspect that, in the short term, congregations that have used 10% of their active membership as a quorum will continue to do so.

    DSW

  3. I remain unimpressed and unconvinced. Here is a case of something being set and quite operable as it now stands: a quorum.

    Enter nFOG. Now a problem arises. What was once fixed is now unknown. Something must be done if nFOG passes. Work needs to be done (by a deadline in many cases). A meeting must be called. A decision needs to be made–and perhaps it could now be a poor decision with too low a quorum requirement, which could allow mischief by those running the show.

    Does anyone really want or need more bureaucratic busywork of this sort, when what we have had so far is working perfectly well to allow for fair meeting quorums and notice? Why buy more work and trouble? Who needs it?

    I find the wording of G-7.0305 illuminating, as well. Look at the verbs: “Shall” language is used for the size of the quorum–“not less than one tenth of the members….” Notice that “may” language is used for setting some other higher quorum: “A congregation by its own vote MAY fix a higher quorum.

    It sure looks to me that the default quorum SHALL be 10 percent of the members, unless the congregation MAY adjust the figure upward.

    Note also that the present Form of Government allows a process for fewer or more than the 10 percent. Tell me again: Why do we need to play games with the whole FoG? What we have is most flexible now!

    Vote no on the endless busywork and confusion of the new Form of Government. We simply don’t need the bother.

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