Recently while visiting one of our congregations I fielded a couple of questions about the annual meeting of the congregation. I figure if someone is asking questions in one congregation, chances are similar questions arise in other congregations.
One question was whether congregations are required to have an annual meeting every year. G-1.0501 states, “The congregation shall hold an annual meeting and may hold special meetings as necessary, for any and all of the purposes appropriate for congregational consideration.” The ‘shall’ in the above sentence makes the annual meeting mandatory.
A congregation is not an entity of governance. The congregation has limited authority given to it by the Book of Order, primarily in G-1.0503. Six categories of actions are listed there:
Electing ruling elders, deacons, and trustees (including whether to not use the ordered ministry of Deacon (G-2.0202)). Also, the congregation needs to elect its members on the nominating committee (G-2.0401).
Calling a pastor, co-pastor or associate pastor.
Changing existing pastoral relationships (see below)
Buying, mortgaging, or selling property (see G-4.0205a and G-4.0208)
Requesting Presbytery to grant an exception as specified in G-2.0404 (inability to provide for rotation of terms for ruling elders)
Approving, amending, or dissolving a plan for a joint congregational witness (two or more congregations of different denominations worshiping and working as one).
Any of these items can properly be handled at an annual or special meeting. The difference is special meetings require advanced notice of business to be transacted, while the annual meeting can handle these matters without advanced notice. (However, giving advanced notice is advisable and helpful for the congregation as a whole.)
There are other things that can arise in a congregational meeting, such as this requirement for the session in G-3.0205: “[The session] shall provide full information to the congregation concerning its decisions in such matters” [annual budget and distribution of benevolences]. This was another question I was asked, about the session’s responsibility to make a presentation on the annual budget to the congregation.
The annual meeting is an excellent opportunity to explain what has gone into the development of the annual budget. The congregation does not vote on the budget, but they have an interest in it as they fund it. I believe it is permissible for the congregation to request that the session reconsider aspects of the annual budget. The session may agree to make such changes, but it is also within its rights to report back that it has considered what it heard from the congregation but declines to make any changes (stating reasons).
Here is one area where this can happen: the annual review of the terms of call of all pastors: “The session shall review annually the minister’s terms of call and shall propose for congregational action (G-1.0503c) such changes as the session deems appropriate.” (G-2.0804).
The Committee on Ministry requests an annual report from sessions on terms of call, certifying its review and subsequent congregational action. Every year some sessions do not make this report because they believe they are not required to if the terms of call did not change. This understanding is incorrect.
G-1.0503c says this about the congregation’s review of terms of call: “changing existing pastoral relationships, by such means as reviewing the adequacy of and approving changes to terms of call …”. Note that the congregation has more than just the responsibility to approve changes to terms of call. It also has the overarching responsibility — particularly if the session is recommending no changes — of determining whether the terms are being maintained in an adequate fashion. It is possible that the session reports a recommendation of no changes and the congregation determines that this is not adequate. The matter then returns to the session for additional consideration and report back to the congregation. Remember that terms of call are not final (whether changed or not) until both the congregation and Presbytery have received them and have acted.
Again, the annual meeting is an important communication tool for the session to interpret its mission, in terms of review of past and announcement of future programs and interpretation of stewardship and budget matters. If done well, it helps foster goodwill and reduces the possibility for conflict within the congregation.
As always I am available for further conversation on these matters.