Dear Nonprofiteer, Can a church board shut out the congregation?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

The church to which I belong holds monthly board meetings to conduct church business. As a member of this community I wish to attend if for no other reason than to observe and better understand the issues and challenges that our face our congregation. I am told that our by-laws do not allow my attendance other than at yearly annual meetings which are more of a presentation of selected information than an actual meeting in any sense of the word. I have checked the by-laws and indeed they state in part: “Due to the confidential nature of some agenda items, Board Meetings are not open to the membership.”

While I don’t doubt that there are confidential items that are best handled in private, I feel this is a cop-out as any meeting can be organized so that there are public and private portions. After all we, the congregants, are the owners of the church, not the board which is currently operating as an ivory tower.

When I served on my Condo board we were structured in such a way that the first portion of the meeting was open to homeowners who could come and ask questions/make comments followed by the public portion of the meeting during which time they could stay and observe but not comment. While it sometimes made for long meetings it was an effective tool in allowing our stakeholders access to the board and the transparency proved to be vital.

As a stakeholder in my church, should I not be allowed the same access? Besides, aren’t there legal requirements that board meetings be open to their stakeholders (I think it’s called the Brown Act)?

Signed, Disenfranchised Congregant

Dear Disenfranchised:

You’ve raised two separate questions (at least two)–whether it’s a good idea for Board meetings to be open to church members, and whether it’s required by law or custom. Unfortunately, the answers to these questions point in two different directions.

The Brown Act is a California state statute requiring open meetings by local government bodies, which has served as a model for Open Meetings Acts around the country. Though nonprofits aren’t local governments, in any state the legislature or courts may choose to make applicable the open meetings act to the meetings of charity Boards of Directors; so the Nonprofiteer can’t say definitely that it doesn’t apply in the case you’ve described.

BUT. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits establishment of religion and guarantees the free exercise thereof, pretty well prevents most governmental bodies from inquiring closely into the operation of churches. The only way to maintain the separation of church and state is to keep the long arm of the law from reaching past the church door; so, even if some Brown Act-equivalent applied to other nonprofits in your state (such as your condo association), it couldn’t be applied to your church. No sane State Attorney General would even try.

So that means, as a member of the congregation, you’re pretty much on your own. The first place to look for assistance is the place you’ve already looked: the bylaws. Don’t be discouraged just because those bylaws say that Board meetings are closed; instead, see what they say about the bigger question, namely, who “owns” the church? Are members of the Board of Directors elected by the congregation, or is it a self-perpetuating Board? Can changes to the bylaws be made by the Board alone, or must they be approved by the congregation? The answers to these questions will tell you whether congregants are, in fact, members of the governing community, or whether you’re just guests at the feast.

If you [congregants] can fire the Board of Directors and/or amend the bylaws, it seems to follow that you can insist that the Board and the bylaws conform to your desire for open meetings–assuming that your personal position on this subject is also the position of a majority of your fellow-congregants. The Board should respond to reasoned discussion of the subject, but if it doesn’t, you simply vote the bastards out at the next scheduled opportunity.

If, however, the church Board is self-perpetuating, or appointed by a synod of your denomination, then you may be out of luck. In that case the church “belongs” to the people who set it up, and your only choice is to play by their rules or take your ball and go home.

None of this, of course, suggests that it’s actually a good idea for Board meetings to be closed at any kind of nonprofit agency, secular or religious. Sunshine, as the saying goes, is the best disinfectant, and most agency decisions should be suitable for examination in the light of day. There will certainly be confidential issues–especially personnel matters–that shouldn’t be discussed in an open meeting; but that’s a reason to go into occasional Executive Session (which Robert’s Rules of Order allows, whether or not the bylaws mention it), not a reason never to be in open session.

So: good practice is on your side, but the law won’t help you. The bylaws may, by demonstrating your ownership of the institution; but if they don’t, it may well be you don’t want to belong to a club that wouldn’t have you as a governing member.


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8 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Can a church board shut out the congregation?”

  1. Heartburn Home Remedy Says:

    I read your posts for quite a long time and must tell you that your posts are always valuable to readers.

  2. Robert Says:

    It’s hardly a “Christian” attitude to shut out church members. Then again, from my experience, church is a great place to feel shut out. But you churches sure don’t shut anyone out when the collection plate is passed, do you?

    As you say, I took my ball and went home, never to return to church. I for one would rather suffer from loneliness than bow and scrape to these phony-baloney churches who don’t care about some of us.

    • judy Says:

      It is a shame Robert that you have not attended another church to share the gifts God has given to you because you were hurt by being “shut out”. Not every church desires such treatment for their congregation. We have only been a “church” for one year now and my husband did not take a salary within that time. Just recently the other four members of the board met and discussed a salary for their pastor. Afterwards we were requested a meeting with a couple in which they informed us on their feelings of not being involved in the decision, tho thought their pastor should have a salary at this time. “I would have liked to just raise my hand and say it is about time and give him all the church can afford to give”. was his statement. We had no idea that the other members felt “shut out”. Our church operates in an unusual unity, altho, we are new at this and we were happy to hear their complaint and will now change the way we handle some things, encluding our meetings. We were glad for the learning experience.
      I pray you find a church that has the love of God present within each member and grow to love others the same way.

    • Howard Says:

      Robert I too have similar feelings as you but I realized the church is not made up of perfect people and sometimes they sin against one another. We are all sick in one way or another and need the Master Physician to heal us. I also realized these occasions can be used to bring us either closer to God or further away. I know in my own family my wife and or I might say or do something that hurts the other person and what we do is work it out in love and in the end we are stronger because of our “working it out”. If you would like to discuss this further I can be contacted at Howard

      • Nonprofiteer Says:

        Despite the values professed by most houses of worship, many of them are operated with ethics seemingly borrowed from the Mafia–an emphasis on loyalty (to a pastor, a doctrine, or a group of fellow parishioners) above all else including good faith and fair dealing. Doubtless there is religious balm available for these problems, but the Nonprofiteer specializes in helping people deal with one another in the circumstances in which they find each other, and in this life and not the next.

  3. chuck Says:

    when personal issues are raised , do we need ever member and non-member in attendance? Boards are eleced by the congregation to do the buisness they have not time to do. It has nothing to do with ivory towers. If you are seriously interested let someone know and get yourself elected at the next annual meeting Don’t just go aroung with sour grapes.

  4. Joe Jimenez Says:

    The problem here is not a legal problem, but a spiritual problem. If you attend a conservative  evangelical church, you should be more concerned about praying for your church leaders because that is the will of God. Your priority is to serve humbly and eagerly in the church in whatever capacity God has called you. Be sure to seek the wiil of God in everything you do.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      There is no requirement of which I’m aware that religious people tolerate wrongdoing from their leaders. Rather, every person is called upon to exercise his/her judgment and exert his/her energies to make sure the church, synagogue, mosque or whatever is operating correctly. Prayer is not a substitute for action, though some people may find it a useful guide to action.

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