It is my prayer that you, your church leadership, and the members of your congregation are finding ways to come together during this time of required physical separation. May the Holy Spirit inspire us all to greater faithfulness during these difficult times.
I have received several questions concerning what the Book of Order permits concerning alternatives to face-to-face meetings, so I have prepared the following information.
Rev. Gerry R. Tyer, Stated Clerk
Can congregations meet without getting together?
Unfortunately, the Book of Order does not allow an alternative to a face-to-face congregational meeting. However, the good news is that most matters concerning a congregation have been assigned to the session. In fact, the congregation can only vote on the following 6 items (see G-1.0503). Everything else is assigned to the session by the Book of Order.
- electing ruling elders, deacons, and trustees
- calling a pastor, co-pastor, or associate pastor
- changing existing pastoral relationships
- buying, mortgaging, or selling real property
- requesting the presbytery to grant an exemption as permitted in this Constitution (G-2.0404)
- approving a plan for the creation of a joint congregational witness (G-5.05)
If one of these items needs to be voted upon, there is one option: written ballots can be sent via snail mail (U.S. Post Office, UPS, etc.) to every member. There is a difficulty with this: any such motion must be unanimously adopted – abstentions are OK, but a single negative vote will prevent it from being approved. (Email options are discussed below.)
If your congregation needs to vote on one of the six items above, please call or email me, and we can discuss the details.
Can Sessions or Committees use electronic voting options, such as email?
The answer is yes and no – it is a little complicated.
The Short Answer
Roberts Rules of Order requires all members of a meeting to be able to discuss motions and hear each other simultaneously. This happens at face-to-face meetings, conference telephone calls, and electronic computer meetings like Zoom or a combination of these. Circulating a motion via email and telling everyone to “reply all” does not meet the simultaneous requirement.
However, email votes are possible under the following conditions:
- All members must have access to email. If one or more do not, they must be contacted via snail mail (U.S. Post Office, UPS, etc.)
- The motion should be clearly stated in the email along with the maker and seconder of the motion.
- If one member votes no or wants to discuss the matter in detail, the motion must be delayed until a telephone conference call meeting (or other “simultaneous” meeting) can be arranged.
- A quorum must reply by voting – abstentions are okay.
- A deadline should be given (at least three days is reasonable).
- Replies should only be sent to the moderator or clerk. “Reply to all” is not allowed.
- The motion is recorded in the minutes of the next meeting.
Sample Email Format
The following motion is proposed by [names of maker and seconder or the X Committee]:
That [state the motion] …
Rational: (if needed)
Deadline: Please respond no later than [date] with your vote. We need a quorum of members to respond by the deadline. Please reply only to the moderator or clerk. Do not “Reply to All.”
□ I vote yes.
□ I vote no.
□ I abstain.
□ I request discussion of the motion at the next face-to-face or telephone conference meeting.
□ I request discussion of a parliamentary question at the next face-to-face or telephone conference meeting.
And, here is the long answer to the question.
In 2004 the General Assembly approved an Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order (F-3.0205) which allows electronic voting under very limited circumstances. Electronic voting is permitted if the following contingencies are met:
1. If provisions for electronic voting are included in the Standing Rules or Manual of Administrative Operations. These provisions need to address the following issues:
a. the type of equipment required for participation in meetings, whether the presbytery must provide such equipment to participants, and contingencies for technical difficulties or malfunctions;
b. methods for determining a quorum;
c. the conditions under which a member may raise a point of order doubting the presence of a quorum, and the conditions under which the continued presence of a quorum is presumed if no such point of order is raised;
d. methods for seeking recognition and obtaining the floor;
e. means by which motions may be submitted in writing during a meeting; and
f. methods for taking and verifying votes (including unanimous consent)
2. If an opportunity for discussion of a motion has been afforded at an earlier face-to-face or telephone conference call meeting, an email vote can be taken subsequent to the meeting if no member objects to the vote. The Book of Order states (G-3.0205) that “decisions shall be reached in governing bodies by vote, following opportunity for discussion and a majority shall govern.” The vote can be delayed as long as all members approve of the vote at a later time.
3. If there has been no previous discussion of the motion, an email vote can be taken under certain circumstances. One of Robert’s Rules of Order voting methods is “unanimous consent” by which the presiding officer offers an opportunity for any comment or objection, and if there is none, simply declares the motion adopted. An email vote can be taken (when allowed by the Standing Rules) under the following circumstances:
a. No member objects to the action or wishes to discuss it. It only takes one member to veto a vote via email and to postpone action until the next face-to-face or telephone conference meeting.
b. The minutes must indicate that every member in fact received the email and was given the opportunity to discuss it or veto action until the next face-to-face or telephone conference meeting. (See the Suggested Procedures below.)
In my opinion, this method does not violate the General Assembly authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order nor Robert’s Rules of Order because it creates the opportunity for deliberation, whether or not members choose to avail themselves of it.
Suggested Procedure for Email Voting
1. The moderator (or clerk) shall notify each member by electronic mail. If a member does not have access to email, that member shall be notified by telephone, fax, or U.S. mail. The notification shall include the complete wording of the motion, pertinent information, and deadline for responding to the moderator (or clerk).
2. Every member must reply that the notice has been received in order to proceed.
3. The moderator shall use discretion when relaying confidential information. Confidential information shall be sent via U.S. mail if a member does not have sole access to an email account or if fax messages are accessible by anyone other than the member.
4. Quorum shall be one-half of the voting members.
5. If a member objects to the matter being presented, voted upon, or wants to discuss the matter in detail, the matter will be handled at the next stated meeting, a special meeting called for this purpose, or a telephone conference call meeting.
a. A minimum of three days shall be permitted to complete voting. Members wishing to vote must vote or abstain from voting via email, fax, or the U.S. mail.
b. Votes shall be submitted only to the moderator (or clerk) in order that early voters do not influence later voters. The moderator shall maintain contact with those members voting by means other than email.
7. If the number of members voting does not constitute a quorum, the motion shall be discussed at a later meeting.
8. Action taken by this process shall appear in the minutes of the next meeting.
Rev. Gerry R. Tyer is the Stated Clerk for Grace Presbytery. His preferred method of communication while staff is currently out of the office is email.