Church governing documents typically confer significant authority in the members. Church members may exercise this authority only when acting at a meeting convened according to procedural requirements in the church’s charter and bylaws or in applicable state law. Actions taken at irregularly called meetings generally are considered invalid unless subsequently ratified at a duly convened meeting.
Church bylaws typically call for annual general meetings of the church membership, and for such special meetings as the congregation or board of directors deems necessary.
The pastor of the church, or the senior pastor of a church having more than one pastor on its staff, is legally authorized to preside at membership meetings if authorized by (1) the church charter or bylaws, (2) established church custom, (3) applicable state nonprofit corporation law, or (4) the doctrine of inherent authority.
Although a church is free to determine the order of business to be followed at general or special meetings, the following order is commonly followed:
- reading and approval of minutes
- reports of officers, boards, and standing committees
- reports of special committees
- special orders
- unfinished business and general orders
- new business345 See, e.g., ROBERT’S RULES OF ORDER NEWLY REVISED § 3 (11th ed. 2011).
Members generally have a right to express their views at church meetings since the very purpose of such meetings is to arrive at decisions through a free and open exchange of ideas. One court ruled that the leaders of two opposing factions within a church had no authority to agree that a church membership meeting would be conducted without discussion.346 Randolph v. Mount Zion Baptist Church, 53 A.2d 206 (N.J. 1947).
Case study. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the state nonprofit corporation law mandating annual membership meetings did not take priority over a provision in a church’s bylaws calling for membership meetings once every four years. The court observed that the state nonprofit corporation law itself specifies that if any of its provisions is inconsistent with religious doctrine governing a nonprofit corporation’s affairs on the same subject, “the religious doctrine shall control to the extent required by the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of this state or both.” As a result, the issue “is whether the frequency with which the church’s membership meets is a matter of religious doctrine having constitutional precedence over inconsistent statutory provisions of [the nonprofit corporation law].” The court noted that the church in this case was “hierarchical” in nature, and that the members had very limited authority to direct church affairs. It concluded: “An annual meeting as contemplated by [the nonprofit corporation law] would be totally inconsistent with the church’s fundamental religious freedom, as a hierarchical religious body, to determine its own governmental rules and regulations. Members have no legal right to wrest the governing of the church from [church officials] by obtaining court-ordered annual meetings conducted in accordance with [nonprofit corporation law].”347 First Born Church of the Living God, Inc. v. Hill, 481 S.E.2d 221 (Ga. 1997).