Since the passage of nFOG earlier today, the Twitter universe has seen numerous tweets asking whether sessions are ready to write their required manuals, that a huge task lies ahead of them, etc. This may not be as fearsome as some think.
We have a definite hierarchy of authorities within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Bible sits at the top, followed by the Book of Confessions and Book of Order, parts one and two of our constitution. The latter book defines the most recent edition of Robert’s Rules (RONR) as the parliamentary authority. A manual of operations sits on the shelf between the constitution and RONR, and is a compendium of the standing policies and procedures of a council, be it a synod, presbytery, or session.
Many sessions have a developed structure that is already expressed through a manual of operations. Some do not. However, this does not mean that these sessions are starting with a blank slate. What a manual does is bring together into one place the standing policies of the session as to its mission, structure, and procedures. Every session already has a “manual” that contains their existing standing policies. We call that book the minutes. If you want to quickly find a policy of the session, would you rather search through all of the minutes, or a manual that has compiled them all in one orderly volume?
Coming up with a session manual gets into the first question of every Jr. High writing assignment — how long does it have to be? (How about session manuals for Twitter — 140 characters or less!) The answer is, how detailed is your session structure? If your session has few committees, few written policies, and few organizations under its umbrella, then the manual will be rather short. The more detailed the structure, the more detailed you will want the manual to be — but this is not to create busy work. In the end, it is for everybody’s protection and guidance, spelling out clearly and in one place how the session has determined that the congregation will be organized and function. We never will be able to purge the old “decently and in order” DNA from our system!
Here are some questions that probe at the issue of items that might need to be in a session manual:
- Does your congregation have bylaws? Put them in the session manual for easy reference, but understand that they are policies of the congregation, and not the session.
- What is the congregation-approved size of the session?
- Does the session operate as a unicameral board; that is, do the elders also serve as trustees?
- Does the congregation use the ordered ministry of Deacon? Are the Deacons organized into a board?
- Does the session have standing committees? How has the session structured them and defined their responsibilities?
- Which of the current options for the work of the nominating committee does the congregation use? Are there any local rules limiting who may be nominated, such as, no two members from the same household at the same time?
- Does the session have personnel policies? (NOTE: current G-10.0102n has for years required all sessions to have personnel policies.) Position descriptions also fit in here.
- What other policies does the session have? Use of the building? Funeral policies? Flower policies? Wedding policies? Procedures for the counting of offerings?
- Are there organizations within the church that need to be defined?
A helpful resource for this task is the Companion to the Constitution, which may be found online here. In this resource you will find Appendix S, Sample Bylaws, and Appendix T, Manual of Administrative Operations, which provide helpful guidance for the areas that need to be covered in a manual, although not everything on this latter list needs to be in every session manual. Add to this the guidance from the Advisory Handbook for Councils, and you will be on your way to compiling or updating your session manual.
Other helpful resources include your presbytery, which already may be gearing up to assist sessions in this process, and neighboring churches. Neighboring churches can be a resource as well. Frequently one of the other Presbyterian churches in the area will call and ask for a copy of our Building Use Policy, or Church Educator position description, or Wedding Policy, to refer to as they work on updating their policies. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel in this task!
This process need not take a tremendous amount of time; I have been through manual revisions with two presbyteries and two sessions, and both my current session and presbytery have been putting off projects to revise their manuals until issues like the nFOG vote were determined. A small group can coordinate the project, seek input from the various committees and organizations of the church, and put together a proposal that the entire session can then study and perfect. The whole world need not stop while this is done, and there is no timetable that says it has to be done immediately. In fact, the average manual is always a work in progress, always changing with the changing needs of the congregation.
One final question: does the need to address this task create the opportunity for taking a comprehensive look at the congregation’s current mission, and how any changes to this might impact on session’s current structure and procedures? Our sense of mission should always inform our structures employed. Maybe this is an opportunity to begin this sort of conversation.
Dan Williams, Second Presbyterian Church, Staunton, VA