Regarding ruling elders: ruling elders and trustees

November 16, 2015

Louisville

Let’s say that in the midst of a meeting of First Presbyterian Church’s board of trustees, the conversation has become “energized” as the group comes to an agreement about investing church funds. As they prepare to move forward, a new trustee asks how the group can proceed and take action on the decision. Rusty McDonnell, president of the board, assures the new member that the trustees do not need approval or counsel with the session and can make a plan for the investment of the monies as a part of this meeting. Interesting development!

The trustees of the church, whether they meet separately or are completely integrated into the session, make decisions only as the session delegates that responsibility to them.

As you consider the relationship between session and trustees, keep in mind that the session of the church, its active ruling elders, are responsible and hold jurisdiction over the entire ministry of the church, with the exception of those very few aspects reserved for teaching elders. So, the trustees of the church, whether they meet separately or are completely integrated into the session, make decisions only as the session delegates that responsibility to them.

The choice of how to employ the gifts of trustees for the ministry of the church is largely a matter of style (and sometimes of trust). In some churches, some of the active elders are designated as trustees, and they exercise their delegated responsibility as committee of session. The decision of the trustees, acting as a committee of session would in regular course be approved by the session, as any other committee’s action would be. In other churches, the trustees meet as a separate body nearly always. The session might tacitly approve the trustees’ actions by having delegated responsibility to them for a particular area of ministry.

A Congregation with a Board of Trustees
Most of the congregations I have served have had a “separate” board of trustees. I put “separate” in quotes, because, as mentioned previously, trustees only have authority that has been delegated to them by the session. In the congregation I currently serve, the session meets on the first Monday of the month, and the trustees meet on the third Monday of the month. And twice each year we have an evening when we meet together (along with the deacons). We also meet together occasionally for special meetings.

The trustees have a president, vice president, treasurer (who functions as the treasurer of the congregation, although they have significant staff support), and a secretary. These officers are chosen by the trustees themselves. The staff support (in a 1,400 member church) includes the “staff” treasurer, who does all the mechanics of the books and keeps the elected trustee treasurer informed, the church administrator, and the executive pastor. Other responsibilities of the trustees include serving as liaisons to some of our constituent ministries: the food pantry board, the child development center board, the camp board, as well as the personnel and stewardship committees.

The session has delegated responsibility for the financial and legal affairs of the church to the trustees. The trustees do not set the budget (that is done by the session), but the trustees monitor it, along with the stewardship committee of session. The trustees claim the first line of responsibility for our facilities as well.

For a constitutional reference to trustees and ruling elders, specifically related to incorporation, see G-4.01 in the PC(USA) Book of Order.

The trust between these boards is maintained through lots of communication. A trustee attends every session meeting. The minutes of each group are reviewed by the other. We recently entered into a capital campaign. When we were considering start dates for building and a new approach to pledging, session held a joint meeting with the trustees to glean from some of their experience.

Either approach can lead to coherent and fruitful ministry as long as the relationship is maintained and the lines of communication are clear. In the case of our friend, Rusty McDonnell, the fictive president of the board of trustees of First Presbyterian Church, he was corrected by the vice president and reminded that while the enthusiasm for the project and its decision was exciting, the group would need to wait until the next session meeting to bring everyone on board.


The Reverend Chandler Stokes is senior pastor & head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has been in ordained ministry for more than thirty years and has worked in rural, suburban, and urban churches from 25 to 1,400 members. And he loves his work.

For more about the information provided here, please contact Martha Miller at martha.miller@pcusa.org and browse the Ruling Elders website.

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  1. An interesting discussion indeed! I have served several congregations as senior pastor and as interim senior which have separate sessions and boards of trustees and which are blessed with endowment funds, some quite sizable. In the church with the largest trust fund we had (and they still have) a unit called "custodians of the trust funds." Yes, indeed, all of this bureaucracy requires a lot of communication, and a lot of trust. And it all worked quite well! As pastor I was chief referee and communicator much of the time, but that was o.k. Many clergy eschew the roles of fund raiser or fund manager, but in congregations with property and assets those kinds of tasks devolve to us in some measure. Clergy should never have a final "say" in spending money and they should never have check-signing authority. Did I say never? I did. In this way we are never tempted by mammon and we are never accused of serving it!

    by Louis S. Lunardini

    November 17, 2015

  2. An interesting article written from the ad hoc experience of congregations who have trustees. As an informative piece for the majority of congregations and their elders - both ruling and teaching; however, I think that the message that the elders of these congregations need to hear is more about the relationship between their ecclesiastical organization (the congregation) and their civil organization (whatever legal framework they are permitted in their state of residence). This would have been better conveyed had the article began by quoting in full the Book of Order, G-4.01 instead of throwing its reference away in a text box at its end. Congregations (and their council, the session) are formed by God, Himself - the Head of the church working through His people and the larger church - not by the state. Congregations are treated in their local civil community; however, under the applicable laws of the state as the may apply in their location. The several Reformation-era Confessions make it clear that the Bible directs us to obey the laws of the state. To make that work, G-4.01 directs congregations to form a civil corporation (where permitted by the local civil law) or designate Trustees within the congregation for the single specific purpose of managing the congregation's property - real and personal. This corporation is a civil entity chartered not by the Head of the church; but, by the state. If such a corporation is not so formed, the congregation (which is and will be treated under civil law as an unincorporated association) will bear this task which G-4.01 vests in the hands of its Board of Trustees. So your local congregation is really two organizations: an ecclesiastical congregation governed by its session and a civil corporation or unincorporated association governed by its Board of Trustees. Aside from the difficulties presented as to which of these organizations might actually be the one with the federal and state tax and donation advantages, ordering the governance of these two organizations comes down to how the local formative and governing documents of the congregation (its ecclesiastical Manual of Operation or Congregational Bylaws) and of the corporation / unincorporated association (its Articles of Incorporation or Organizing Principles of the Association and this entity's Bylaws - which are necessarily separate from the Bylaws of the congregation) implement G-4.01's dictum: "The powers and duties of the trustees shall not infringe upon the powers and duties of the session or the board of deacons." (This is not legal advice, it is management advice. Please seek the advice of a local attorney competent in the federal and state non-profit laws that apply to your specific locality before taking action on it.) Arthur W. Ritter, BEE, MPA, MBA Ruling Elder and Past Moderator of the Presbytery of Nevada, PC(USA)

    by Arthur W. Ritter

    November 16, 2015

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