Conducting Congregational Meetings

The COVID-19 restrictions on traveling, gathering and meeting have made it impossible for congregational meetings to be held in person. This has caused problems in respect of the adjustment process, the adoption of new unitary constitutions and approving the sale or disposal of church buildings.

The following guidance is offered on congregational meetings where there needs to be a vote such as those held to elect a minister, consider a Basis of Adjustment or approve the sale of a building.

The General Assembly in 2020 approved protocols which give alternative decision making processes to holding in-person congregational meetings. These follow the same general format as the Vacancy Protocol, which was agreed at the Commission of Assembly held on 7 July and ensured that vacancy process could continue. The protocols were extended for use by the General Assembly of 2021 and can be used until next May when the normal in-person process is not being followed. It is recommended that these protocols continue to be used where:

  • The Kirk Session consider that there are a number of members who, at this time in the pandemic, would not be willing to attend an in-person meeting due to virus-related health concerns and would, therefore, be excluded or
  • There would be insufficient room in the sanctuary or hall for all those who would wish to attend because the locally preferred level of physical distancing has reduced the seating capacity to that extent

The protocols do not need to be used and an in-person congregational meeting can be held when all those who would wish to attend feel comfortable in doing so and the capacity of the building would allow them to be seated comfortably and safely. The decision to have an in-person meeting is for the Kirk Session to make having taken into consideration the issues raised in the bullet points above.

Congregations should note that there is no legal provision for a hybrid meeting, i.e. where there is an in-person meeting and a virtual process.

Congregational Meetings Protocols

Agreed by the General Assembly on 3 October 2020

Relating to congregational meetings to approve Bases of Adjustment (Act VII 2003), adopt a Unitary Constitution (Act XIX 1964) or make a decision on the proposed sale or disposal of a church or hall building (Act VII 1995)

Sections of deliverance agreed by the General Assembly on 3 October 2020:

  1. In relation to congregational meetings:

    (i) Agree that until the opening day of the next General Assembly it shall be permissible for a Presbytery to effect adjustment in terms of the Appraisal and Adjustment Act (Act VII 2003) ("the Act") where a Basis of Adjustment has been considered and voted upon by the congregation(s) involved in the manner specified in the Congregational Meetings on Bases of Adjustment Protocol set out in Appendix E, provided that the adjustment process otherwise complies with the terms of the Act.

    (ii) Agree that until the opening day of the next General Assembly it shall be permissible for the Delegation of Assembly to issue a Unitary Constitution in terms of the Congregational Constitutions Act (Act XIX 1964) where the congregation(s) has/have agreed to adopt that Constitution in the manner specified in the Congregational Meetings for Adopting the Unitary Constitution Protocol set out in Appendix F.

    (iii) Agree that the Protocols set out in Appendices E and F may subsequently be amended as directed by the Committee, acting reasonably and in the interests of all parties.

  2. Agree that until the opening day of the next General Assembly, a Financial Board of a congregation (as that expression is used in the General Trustees (Delegated Powers) Act (Act VII 1995)) may meet and vote by video-conferencing or audio-conferencing or a combination of the two, provided that the principles set out in the Protocol agreed by the Commission of Assembly on 7 July 2020 shall be adhered to by all involved.
  3. In relation to congregational meetings held in relation to the sale or disposal of church buildings:

(i) Agree that until the opening day of the next General Assembly it shall be permissible for a congregation to make a decision on the proposed sale or disposal of a church or hall building in terms of the General Trustees (Delegated Powers) Act (Act VII 1995) where the congregation has proceeded in the manner set out in the Congregational Meetings on Sale or Disposal of Church Buildings Protocol set out in Appendix G, and

(ii) Agree that the Protocol set out in Appendix G may subsequently be amended as directed by the Committee, acting reasonably and in the interests of all parties.

The Protocols

APPENDIX E

The Congregational Meetings on Bases of Adjustment Protocol (v1, 3 October 2020)

In light of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it imposes on daily activities such as travelling, gathering and meeting, and with the intention of enabling the Church's adjustment processes to continue despite the pandemic and thus promote the vitality and well-being of congregations, and notwithstanding the provisions of the Appraisal and Adjustment Act (Act VII 2003) ("the Act"), section 13(2), it is agreed that it shall be permissible for a Presbytery to proceed to effect adjustment in terms of the Act where, instead of a congregational meeting in person, a Basis of Adjustment has been considered and voted upon by the congregation(s) involved in the manner set out in this Protocol, and provided that the adjustment process otherwise complies with the terms of the Act:

Before this Protocol can be used:

  • After the process set out in section 13(1) of the Act has been completed, the sets of office bearers of each congregation involved must have met under section 13(2) of the Act under the convenership of a member of the Presbytery appointed to this task and must have voted upon the Basis of Adjustment, and each set of office bearers must have voted in favour of the Basis in question;
  • Thereafter (and this meeting may follow on immediately from the individual ones held above), the Presbytery (or its appropriate Standing Committee), must meet with the Kirk Session(s) involved to consider the full circumstances of the proposed adjustment and to decide whether the Protocol should be used for the specific Basis of Adjustment; this Protocol may only be used where the outcome of such a meeting is agreement that it is appropriate for the congregation(s) in question to consider and vote upon the Basis of Adjustment in line with this Protocol; if the Presbytery and all Kirk Session(s) involved are not so agreed then the Protocol may not be used for the adjustment matter in question;

If it is agreed at the meeting between the Presbytery and the Kirk Session(s) involved that the Protocol can be used for the Basis of Adjustment in question, then the process shall be as follows:

  • Intimation to all members and adherents of the congregation(s) of the intended process as set out in this Protocol must be given as follows: at physical or online worship, by placing on the website and social media if used, and by email or letter and/or by phone, so as to ensure that all members and adherents of the congregation(s) receive intimation of the intended process in some form or other, declaring for the avoidance of doubt that a mixture of intimation methods may be agreed by the Kirk Session(s);
  • In such intimation a period of 14 days must be specified within which members and adherents may submit to the Kirk Session(s) questions about the Basis of Adjustment which they wish to have answered;
  • A "questions and answers" document must thereafter be prepared by the Presbytery (or its appropriate Standing Committee), in conjunction with the Kirk Session(s), to accompany the Basis of Adjustment when it is to be voted upon;
  • The Basis of Adjustment and the "questions and answers" document must be circulated in hard copy or by email to all members and adherents eligible to vote along with the ballot paper, declaring that there may be a combination of circulation methods depending on recipient;
  • The ballot papers must be prepared and circulated in such a manner as to enable verification of eligibility to vote;
  • The ballot papers must be returned (by email, post or hand-delivery) to the Presbytery Clerk or other delegated official within 14 days of their date of issue and all votes must be counted and the result announced in circumstances which are open and transparent and which promote trust and confidence in the outcome; the Kirk Session(s) shall agree the method(s) by which the result shall be intimated;
  • Prior to the Presbytery meeting at which a decision is made on the adjustment in question, the Presbytery's Standing Committee must see and approve a report as to the use of this Protocol in the congregation(s) in question, which report should contain the "questions and answers" document, the ballot paper used and a note of the votes cast for and against;
  • For the avoidance of doubt:
    • The Presbytery meeting thereafter at which the decision on adjustment is made may be held in accordance with the decision of the Commission of Assembly on 7 July 2020 (ie by video and/or audio conference or by a combination of the two and/or with some persons physically present) and any congregation directly involved in the matter must be cited to appear (by video or audio conference or in person);
    • Nothing in this Protocol affects the ability of the Presbytery in terms of section 13(2) of the Act to effect adjustment;

And provided further that detailed Guidance for Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions reflecting this Protocol may be issued by the Principal Clerk, which Guidance may be updated from time to time at the direction of the Legal Questions Committee.

APPENDIX F

The Congregational Meetings on Adopting the Unitary Constitution Protocol (v1, 3 October 2020)

In light of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it imposes on daily activities such as travelling, gathering and meeting, and with the intention of enabling congregations to adopt the Unitary Constitution even where a meeting to pass a Resolution to do so, or to agree a Basis of Adjustment which provides for it, has not been possible, and thus promote the vitality and well-being of congregations, and notwithstanding the provisions of the Congregational Constitutions Act (Act XIX 1964) ("the Act"), section 6, it is agreed that it shall be permissible for the Delegation of Assembly to issue a Unitary Constitution in terms of the Congregational Constitutions Act (Act XIX 1964) ("the Act") where the congregation has/have agreed to adopt that Constitution in the manner set out in this Protocol:

Before this Protocol can be used:

  • The Kirk Session involved must first have met and voted in favour of the adoption of the Unitary Constitution;
  • Thereafter (and this meeting may follow on immediately from the individual one(s) held above), the Presbytery (or its appropriate Standing Committee), must meet with the Kirk Session involved to decide whether the Protocol should be used for the congregation in question; this Protocol may only be used where the outcome of such a meeting is agreement that it is appropriate for the congregation in question to vote upon the adoption of the Unitary Constitution in line with this Protocol; if the Presbytery and the Kirk Session involved are not so agreed then the Protocol may not be used for the congregation in question;

If it is agreed at the meeting between the Presbytery and the Kirk Session involved that the Protocol can be used for the congregation in question, then the process shall be as follows:

  • Intimation to all members and adherents of the congregation(s) of the intended process as set out in this Protocol must be given as follows: at physical or online worship, by placing on the website and social media if used, and by email or letter and/or by phone, so as to ensure that all members and adherents of the congregation(s) receive intimation of the intended process in some form or other, declaring for the avoidance of doubt that a mixture of intimation methods may be agreed by the Kirk Session(s);
  • A ballot paper asking whether the recipient is for or against adoption of the Unitary Constitution must be circulated in hard copy or by email to all members and adherents eligible to vote, declaring that there may be a combination of circulation methods depending on recipient;
  • The ballot papers must be prepared and circulated in such a manner as to enable verification of eligibility to vote;
  • The ballot papers must be returned (by email, post or hand-delivery) to Session Clerk(s) within 14 days of their date of issue and all votes must be counted and the result announced in circumstances which are open and transparent and which promote trust and confidence in the outcome; the Kirk Session(s) shall agree the method(s) by which the result shall be intimated;
  • Prior to the Presbytery meeting at which the Presbytery is to decide whether or not to concur in the decision of the congregation(s), the Presbytery must see and approve a report as to the use of this Protocol in the congregation(s) in question, which report should contain the ballot paper used and a note of the votes cast for and against;
  • For the avoidance of doubt:
    • The Presbytery meeting thereafter at which the decision on whether or not to concur in the decision of the congregation(s) may be held in accordance with the decision of the Commission of Assembly on 7 July 2020 (ie by video and/or audio conference or by a combination of the two and/or with some persons physically present);
    • Where a new Unitary Constitution is to be adopted in terms of a Basis of Adjustment, the Congregational Meetings on Bases of Adjustment Protocol shall be used rather than this Protocol;

And provided further that detailed Guidance for Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions reflecting this Protocol may be issued by the Principal Clerk, which Guidance may be updated from time to time at the direction of the Legal Questions Committee.

APPENDIX G

The Congregational Meetings on Sale or Disposal of Church Buildings Protocol (v1, 3 October 2020)

In light of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it imposes on daily activities such as travelling, gathering and meeting, and with the intention of enabling congregations to make a decision on the proposed sale or disposal of a church or hall building even where a meeting to agree to do so has not been possible, and thus promote the vitality and well-being of congregations, and notwithstanding the provisions of the General Trustees (Delegated Powers) Act (Act VII 1995) ("the Act"), section 2(1), it is agreed that it shall be permissible for a congregation to make a decision on the proposed sale or disposal of a church or hall buildingin terms of the General Trustees (Delegated Powers) Act (Act VII 1995) ("the Act") where the congregation has proceeded in the manner set out in this Protocol:

Before this Protocol can be used:

  • The Financial Board of the congregation involved (as that expression is used in the Act) and the Kirk Session (if applicable) must first have met and voted in favour of the proposed sale or disposal of a church or hall building in question;
  • Thereafter (and this meeting may follow on immediately after the meeting in the foregoing paragraph), the Presbytery (or its appropriate Standing Committee), must meet with the Financial Board of the congregation involved to decide whether the Protocol should be used for the congregation in question; this Protocol may only be used where the outcome of such a meeting is agreement that it is appropriate for the congregation in question to vote upon the proposed sale or disposal of a church or hall building in question in line with this Protocol; if the Presbytery and the Financial Board involved are not so agreed then the Protocol may not be used for the congregation in question;

If it is agreed at the meeting between the Presbytery and the Financial Board of the congregation involved that the Protocol can be used for the congregation in question, then the process shall be as follows:

  • Intimation to all members and adherents of the congregation of the intended process as set out in this Protocol must be given as follows: at physical or online worship, by placing on the website and social media if used, and by email or letter and/or by phone, so as to ensure that all members and adherents of the congregation receive intimation of the intended process in some form or other, declaring for the avoidance of doubt that a mixture of intimation methods may be agreed by the Financial Board;
  • A ballot paper asking whether the recipient is for or against the proposed sale or disposal of the church or hall building in question must be circulated in hard copy or by email to all members and adherents eligible to vote, declaring that there may be a combination of circulation methods depending on recipient;
  • The ballot papers must be prepared and circulated in such a manner as to enable verification of eligibility to vote;
  • The ballot papers must be returned (by email, post or hand-delivery) to the Clerk to the Financial Board within 14 days of their date of issue and all votes must be counted and the result announced in circumstances which are open and transparent and which promote trust and confidence in the outcome; the Financial Board shall agree the method(s) by which the result shall be intimated;
  • Prior to the Presbytery meeting at which the Presbytery is to decide whether or not to concur in the decision of the Financial Board and the congregation, the Presbytery must see and approve a report as to the use of this Protocol in the congregation in question, which report should contain the ballot paper used and a note of the votes cast for and against;
  • For the avoidance of doubt: the Presbytery and Financial Board meetings at which the decisions are made on whether or not to agree to the proposed sale or disposal of a church or hall building may be held in accordance with the decision of the Commission of Assembly on 7 July 2020 (ie by video and/or audio conference or by a combination of the two and/or with some persons physically present);

And provided further that detailed Guidance for Presbyteries and Financial Boards reflecting this Protocol may be issued by the Principal Clerk, which Guidance may be updated from time to time at the direction of the Legal Questions Committee.