Commission on Ministry

 Guidelines for Holding Congregational Meetings in Extraordinary Times

 “As it participates in God’s mission, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seeks…a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world.”

(Book of Order, 2019-2021, F-1.0404 )

In the season of Covid-19, the leadership of our churches and ministries have faithfully responded creatively to how we continue the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ in unprecedented circumstances. Given the duration of this ongoing pandemic, congregations will find it necessary to hold congregational meetings virtually. We hope these guidelines will provide a roadmap that will ensure an open and successful virtual gathering, allowing for thoughtful decision-making.

As with all congregational meetings, the leadership and session should ensure that all members have the ability to participate in the meeting. This includes choosing a platform that is accessible to all members, giving adequate notice of the meeting, and having a plan for how all members will be able to vote.

Should your current bylaws not include a provision for virtual congregational meetings, we recommend that your first action at that virtual congregational meeting be to “amend your bylaws” to include language that would allow you to make decisions virtually in “times of natural disaster or global pandemic that do not allow community to gather in person.” This recommended amendment would come as a recommendation from the session.

The Commission on Ministry welcomes any additional thoughts you would consider as important and helpful for our churches as we continue to navigate this season of social distancing while claiming to be a covenant community of God.

Items to Consider in Planning for a Virtual Gathering

Platform:

  • Choose a platform that all members can access, regardless of internet access or technological ability. If you use a video conferencing program, make sure there is an option for members to call in (Zoom has this capability, for example). It is also possible to set up a conference call line so that everyone joins by phone.
  • You may find it useful to offer time for members to test the platform. For example, if you plan to use Zoom, but have not regularly used it as a congregation, you may want to set up a test meeting before the congregational meeting to allow members to familiarize themselves with the technology.
    • Please note, you might consider setting up the test meeting and congregational meeting as a recurring meeting so that the link will be the same for both, reducing the risk of confusion about how to join the congregational meeting. An additional strategy could be using your “personal meeting ID” so that the link is consistent.

Notice of the Meeting (Time & Means of Communication):

  • In order to ensure that all members have the opportunity to participate in a congregational meeting, adequate notice of the meeting must be given. Each congregation’s bylaws should elaborate on what is considered “adequate notice”—how far in advance must notice be given and by what means the call for the meeting is to be
  • How will you ensure that word of the congregation gets to all members? In addition to notice given in worship (whether by Zoom, Facebook Live, or other means), you may need to consider email, phone calls, and/or snail mail as part of adequate notice.
  • Make sure all relevant documents are sent to every member in advance of the Documents can also be linked or shared in the chat during the meeting.

Voting:

  • Open the meeting with a tech orientation and practice vote to ensure members are comfortable with the process.
  • Any questions about the process can be put in the chat so that the moderator can address them before starting the business of the meeting. Many votes are done by a simple voice vote, which is easily done virtually. Remind participants to unmute themselves so that their vote can be heard.
  • Non-controversial actions can be approved by consent simply by calling for any
  • Make a plan for counting votes if a division of the house (counting votes) is called for. Consider how to count votes for households with multiple voting members. You might encourage them to use separate devices, if possible. Another option is to call for a second round of voting to tally votes from those who did not vote in the first round because another member of their household voted in the first round.
  • If using Zoom, the “raise hands” feature may be useful here. Participants joining by video can click “Raise Hand” in their own controls; participants joining by phone can touch *9 to “Raise Hand.” All the raised hands will appear next to names in the “participants” window, where the clerk could count the votes. Please note, Zoom offers polling options, but that would exclude those joining by
  • If meeting by conference call, a roll call vote may be necessary to count the
  • Consider your options for how a secret ballot would be handled if necessary. If a vote requires a secret ballot, you would likely need to postpone the vote until an in-person meeting or mail-in ballots are possible.
  • Allow additional time for voting in case of technical difficulties.

Security Concerns:

  • If you have additional security concerns, you could consider adding registration and/or passcodes to the meeting. Please use discernment as you seek to balance openness and inclusivity with issues of security.

Tech Support:

  • The presbytery has identified a limited number of volunteers who may be able to assist you in discerning some of the best options for your context as you plan for your meeting. Consider there may be those within your congregation skilled in the use of these technologies who would welcome the opportunity to serve in this new ministry of assisting your congregation to stay engaged in the life of the church, both as you plan your meetings and while they are happening.
  • Each meeting should have multiple co-hosts to manage the chat room, screen sharing, registration, security, etc. Co-hosts can help manage the efficiency of the meeting, address any interactions that may not be appropriate for the meeting, and be a welcoming presence. For more on the role of co-hosts, see the April 23 Tech Tip here.
  • If you need assistance with the technology, reach out to Rev. Greg Klimovitz, [email protected], who can connect you with the presbytery’s tech deacons.