Your church likely requires a membership meeting at least once a year and by a certain date. During this meeting, you may need to vote on new regulations, pass a budget, and elect new leaders. You may have to schedule board meetings on a short timeframe to discuss important matters. However, what if you cannot meet in person? Are people “present” at a virtual meeting?
Over the last couple of years, people have become accustomed to conducting meetings and even social gatherings online. It is important to review some of the details surrounding the legality of virtual church meetings in different scenarios. In every instance, you will need to review your state’s laws and your church’s bylaws.
For your church board meetings, you most likely need to have a quorum present to pass and approve any measures. Fortunately, most state laws allow for board members to be considered present, even if they attend virtually or over the phone, provided that everyone has an opportunity to be heard, just as though everyone was sitting together.
Be sure to keep accurate meeting minutes. Even if some people are physically present, account for everyone, and describe how they attended the board meeting.
When making decisions during a board meeting in person, you would raise measures and vote on them. You need to do it the same way with a virtual meeting. You also need to ensure that every participant can hear clearly and understands the measure being addressed. Confusion could lead to incorrect voting, which can be nearly impossible to undo.
Make sure that any voting is done in real time, just as though everyone was in the same room together. Do not conduct voting via email or message. Unless your board has previously approved taking action in writing via email, you must vote and come to a resolution while in the virtual meeting.
Your church’s bylaws may require that you hold members meetings periodically, usually annually. However, if you cannot meet in person, you might violate your own bylaws. The irony is that you have to have the meeting to comply with your church’s bylaws, but the only way to approve a virtual members meeting is to meet and approve the measure.
Most state laws yield to what your organization’s bylaws say about virtual meetings. If your bylaws allow for a virtual members meeting, it is legal. However, you cannot hold the meeting with a prerecorded video that members simply watch or email a video link to them. The virtual members meeting must be live just like it would be if everyone gathered in the same room.
In addition, all members must be able to communicate. Whether a member joins via virtual video platform or calls into a conference line, all members must be able to participate in the virtual members meeting.
Just like a board meeting, take detailed meeting minutes. Note which members are physically present, which are calling in, and which have joined with video. For voting purposes, you can verify members by their face or voice. For an added layer of protection, you can email each member a password that they need to provide when placing their vote.
Practically speaking, this approach can work for a church of any size. However, it would be much easier to hold a virtual members meeting with just a dozen or so members. Once you get into larger congregations, especially those over 100, it can become extremely difficult. Here are some tips and some items to consider for larger congregations:
- Keeping order for in-person meetings is challenging, but doing so in a virtual meeting is even more difficult. You may need to have a person lead the meeting, keeping all participants muted until their hand is raised and they are unmuted so they can speak.
- Know your church quorum requirements in advance of the meeting. Most virtual meeting platforms will tell the meeting host how many participants are in the meeting, so you can quickly know when you have reached your quorum.
- How will you verify members and those eligible to vote? You must verify that all votes being counted are from members eligible to vote. Use a password or conduct a roll call, where only one person votes at a time and the meeting host calls out the people eligible to vote one by one.
- How will you handle technical difficulties? Have someone on standby who knows the virtual meeting platform you choose but also plan in advance. You can even conduct a training session, especially for voting members, showing them how to access the system and use the meeting controls.
Emergency meetings do not occur often, but they may be necessary in some cases to pass measures that cannot wait for an annual meeting. What qualifies as an emergency? Most state law requires some level of catastrophic event to qualify as an emergency. A global pandemic alone would probably not qualify as a catastrophic event because, as described above, your church has virtual options for holding meetings. However, if you combine the pandemic and people’s inability to be in the same room for a physical meeting along with a member’s illness, that might qualify as a catastrophic event. With the absence of one or more members, your church may not be able to reach a quorum, in which case you would need to follow your state’s law on how to proceed with an emergency meeting.
Some common actions you may be able to take, depending on your state law, include:
- Appointment of new board members to accommodate any incapacity of an existing member.
- Lines of succession may also be modified.
- Notice of director meetings may be given via email.
- The board may relocate the principal office.
- Emergency bylaws may be enacted.
- Good faith actions taken at an emergency meeting will be binding on the church.
As with the other meetings, make sure you have detailed meeting minutes. You need to note why the emergency meeting was called, what makes it an emergency, if anyone had objections, who participated, and how each participant was present for the meeting, in person, virtually, or over the phone.
Before engaging in a virtual church meeting, you must review your state’s laws and your church’s bylaws. If the state where your church operates does not recognize virtual platforms as making members present for a meeting, you may need to explore other avenues, regardless of whether your bylaws allow for virtual meetings to occur. If your state does allow virtual meetings, then that makes your next steps much easier, even if you have to amend your bylaws to hold virtual meetings.
Legality of your church meetings is crucial. If your meetings are not valid either under state law or your church bylaws, any decisions made at a virtual meeting could be invalid, and you may need to take drastic measures to undo what was decided. Then, you have the added time and expense of going back through the meeting process again just to re-approve everything you already discussed. This is why it is paramount that you and your fellow church leaders partner with a trusted church attorney who understands the nuances and complexities surrounding corporate meetings and your need to keep your congregation informed.
Church Law Attorneys at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC Keep Your Church Meetings Legally Compliant
Making decisions for your church and the congregation is vital to your organization’s needs. To ensure you conduct your meetings in compliance with all relevant laws and regulations, speak with our church law attorneys at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC. Call us at 757-LAW-0000 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation. Located in Virginia Beach, we serve clients throughout Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, and Eastern Shore, Virginia. We also serve our clients throughout the United States through our network of associated attorneys.