Q&A: Should Unanimity Be Required When a Church’s Governing Board Votes on a Significant Issue?

Requiring unanimous approval can easily immobilize the church when it comes to important decisions

My church’s governing elder board recently had a vote to lay off an employee, and the vote was not unanimous. Some board members believe that important decisions like this one should be unanimous. As you can imagine, trying to get unanimity on any vote can be extremely difficult.

Even if we instituted some sort of a quorum, we would still have a problem because we currently have eight voting members. A tie would keep us from moving forward with a decision.
Another complication: My church is nondenominational and so we can’t receive guidance from a denominational authority.
How should my church resolve this problem?
While many churches and ministries find it comforting and reassuring to have unanimity on significant decisions, that can be a difficult standard to apply to every decision. While it is ultimately a matter of judgment and discernment as to what your church’s governance policy should be in this area, you’ve discovered that requiring unanimous approval can easily immobilize the church when it comes to significant decisions.
Most churches operate with polity that allows a majority of board members present at a meeting with a quorum to approve most decisions. Very significant decisions (like the dismissal of a board member, employment of a senior pastor, acquiring or selling real property, and entering into significant debt) often have supermajority requirements (such as requiring two-thirds or three-fourths of the board to approve). Rarely, however, do you see unanimity requirements.
One big disadvantage of a unanimity requirement: If one board member is preventing a decision by voting no and the other board members are passionate about the decision, they may need to remove the one board member from the board in order to move forward. And you should always be able to remove a board member without counting that board member’s vote in the decision to remove him/her—except in cases where the board has adopted certain “founder protection” provisions in the governing documents. Such provisions protect the original founder and visionary of a church or ministry. Even then, there should be exceptions for moral turpitude.
If you do go with a simple majority requirement for most decisions, together with a supermajority requirement for major decisions, the board is always free to require a unanimous decision on any particular issue. For example, if the board is considering a spiritually significant issue and some board members believe that the decision should be unanimous, a motion can be made for that decision to require a unanimous vote. If a majority approves that motion, then the decision at hand will require unanimous approval to pass.
One final thought: There is a reason we require an odd number of justices on the Supreme Court. You should really try to have an odd number on your governing board.
Michael (Mike) E. Batts is a CPA and the managing partner of Batts Morrison Wales & Lee, P.A., an accounting firm dedicated exclusively to serving nonprofit organizations across the United States.

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