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!
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.
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.