Duty of a Session when they overstep (PCA)

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VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
In an effort to keep this short, I won't get into the back story and just stick to facts and the question.

A Session violates its authority (such as usurpation). Session has privately responded to a formal complaint with a recantation and correction. Session did not make public the violation or recantation. Session minutes are not made public, so there is no way for a congregant to know about the complaint or the recantation. What is the duty of the Session regarding public disclosure of the error? What scripture, BCO rules, or other authority would give a congregant grounds for a complaint regarding the failure to disclose that violation/recantation?
 

Alan D. Strange

Puritan Board Senior
In the administrative disciplinary process, the judicatory (or court) complained against (for alleged error or delinquency) either affirms or denies said complaint. If it affirms the complaint, it then considers the amends sought. If either the complaint is denied or the amends granted are considered inadequate, appeal may be made to the presbytery (as the next highest judicatory).

None of this is by nature private as all this is spread on the minutes, which must be read by the Presbytery (and non-executive minutes, of meetings not held in camera, are open in some measure for perusal). The complaint process is a formal process that is not private as such.

This is not to say, however, that the session is under any obligation to tell the congregation (something like), "in our dealing with x, we made the following error and have now rectified it." If the amends sought included some sort of public apology (because this was deemed needed) and the session did not grant such amends, appeal may be taken on such a failure/refusal. Bit it is not the case, as a matter of course, that a session must publicize any error that it makes, especially if it was not something public, needing such widespread announcement.

I hope that this proves helpful.

Peace,
Alan
 

Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
The minutes are public. At least the actions both of the original action and the complaint, and the resulting action of that complaint. All public. You simply need to request them from the Clerk of Session.

If he says all of that is in the executive session minutes, then you can be understanding of that while humbly requesting the actions from the regular, non-executive session, minutes. Because every action in 'executive session' (i.e. closed to public) must be recorded in the regular minutes.
 

VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
In the administrative disciplinary process, the judicatory (or court) complained against (for alleged error or delinquency) either affirms or denies said complaint. If it affirms the complaint, it then considers the amends sought. If either the complaint is denied or the amends granted are considered inadequate, appeal may be made to the presbytery (as the next highest judicatory).

None of this is by nature private as all this is spread on the minutes, which must be read by the Presbytery (and non-executive minutes, of meetings not held in camera, are open in some measure for perusal). The complaint process is a formal process that is not private as such.

This is not to say, however, that the session is under any obligation to tell the congregation (something like), "in our dealing with x, we made the following error and have now rectified it." If the amends sought included some sort of public apology (because this was deemed needed) and the session did not grant such amends, appeal may be taken on such a failure/refusal. Bit it is not the case, as a matter of course, that a session must publicize any error that it makes, especially if it was not something public, needing such widespread announcement.

I hope that this proves helpful.

Peace,
Alan
In the case where a Session has usurped the authority of the congregation, would it not be prudent - and even necessary - to make that correction public? It seems unwise to leave that action 'out there' without clarifying publicly that it was an incorrect action. I see your point as it concerns private matters of Session interactions with a particular individual, or even with the Presbytery. But this was usurpation of the Congregation's authority. So it seems more relevant to consider a public clarification.

I was not planning on pursuing the issue of disclosure, but we are facing a second event where the Session's role in the pastoral call was severely over-stated. And now that there are two statements 'out there' that have not been corrected publicly, I am concerned the bulk of the congregation is now misled (unintentionally, but still detrimentally) about their authority in this process.
 

Edward

Puritanboard Commissioner
I start with the position that private offenses merit a private correction, and a public offense merits a public correction. Without the back story, it's difficult to tell if the actions taken were sufficient. As suggested upstream, obtain copies of the minutes of the original session action and the minutes of the corrective action. But think long and hard about whether the matter should be publicized or if personalities and egos are driving this.
 

VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
The minutes are public. At least the actions both of the original action and the complaint, and the resulting action of that complaint. All public. You simply need to request them from the Clerk of Session.

If he says all of that is in the executive session minutes, then you can be understanding of that while humbly requesting the actions from the regular, non-executive session, minutes. Because every action in 'executive session' (i.e. closed to public) must be recorded in the regular minutes.
We actually wrote the complaint and received the response, so my concern is more on behalf of the Congregation. The Session issued public, written statements asserting authority they didn't have. They have privately confirmed their desire to follow the BCO, and have abandoned their plans accordingly. But since the statements made to the Congregation were improper, it seems the offense was to the whole church and not to the one who made the complaint. It has led the congregation to believe something about the Session's authority that is not supported by the BCO. Shouldn't that be corrected?

It is our desire to determine if such a duty to disclose exists, and by what authority such a complaint might be brought. If it does not exist, we can make an appeal rather than a formal complaint.

For example, does the Session have a duty to teach the congregation about the workings of the BCO, or is polity beyond the obligations of their teaching duties? If the Session makes any public statement that is misleading or just flat out wrong, do they have a duty to publicly correct it? If the BCO is not being followed publicly, and that is made known privately, does the Session have an obligation to make that correction (or change of course, or abandonment of action) known publicly? If the Session takes an action that involves the congregation or makes a request of the congregation and then suddenly abandons that action or request, is there a justifiable reason to require them to communicate why they abandoned it?

I hope this helps give more insight into what we are trying to figure out.
 

VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
I start with the position that private offenses merit a private correction, and a public offense merits a public correction. Without the back story, it's difficult to tell if the actions taken were sufficient. As suggested upstream, obtain copies of the minutes of the original session action and the minutes of the corrective action. But think long and hard about whether the matter should be publicized or if personalities and egos are driving this.
Edward, I agree that any time we approach church leadership, we have to check our own motives. Elders have a painful and weighted job, and I try really hard not to push back without cause. It's part of the reason I posted here - to check whether there is even justification for a complaint at all.

The usurpation of Congregational authority was done in the form of public, written statements that violated the BCO. The complaint was made, and the planned actions were abandoned. The Congregation knows nothing of the usurpation, or why the original plans were abandoned. I can come up with several reasons why it would be wise and prudent to clarify the error. But if the Session has a duty to act here (by disclosing the overstep and clarifying the proper process), it is better for church polity that we follow the formal complaint route. On the other hand, if there is no duty to act, a formal complaint is not justified and a letter of appeal would be the reasonable choice. My hope is to get some counsel on whether they have a duty to act or not.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
Have you asked for a correcting announcement and had your request denied? In many cases, you can accomplish more by asking nicely than you could by looking for a rule to enforce through a formal complaint process.
 

VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
Have you asked for a correcting announcement and had your request denied? In many cases, you can accomplish more by asking nicely than you could by looking for a rule to enforce through a formal complaint process.
The only real reason to file a formal complaint is to be able to refer it to Presbytery if the Session rejects it or fails to take it up. Now, if you don't intend to escalate it to the Presbytery anyway, the formal complaint is just posturing. But in the case of usurpation, I consider that a big enough issue to pursue it if the Session fails to act. Keep in mind that if you ask nicely but fail to make it a formal complaint, then you have likely missed the window of time allowed for filing a formal complaint. The Presbytery can toss it if you don't follow the rules.

I prefer to do all my due diligence up front. Make sure I understand the scope of my issue (is it real or imagined, preference or principle, objective or subjective), make sure my case is justified and defend-able, and ultimately whether it should be couched as a formal complaint or simply an appeal.

In some cases, my due diligence may lead me to not pursue the issue at all. I need to make sure it is worthy of the time I am asking the Session to devote to it. I absolutely don't want to send them anything that is frivolous or trivial. They have enough on their plates, and if I can overlook it, I should.
 

VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
The only real reason to file a formal complaint is to be able to refer it to Presbytery if the Session rejects it or fails to take it up. Now, if you don't intend to escalate it to the Presbytery anyway, the formal complaint is just posturing. But in the case of usurpation, I consider that a big enough issue to pursue it if the Session fails to act. Keep in mind that if you ask nicely but fail to make it a formal complaint, then you have likely missed the window of time allowed for filing a formal complaint. The Presbytery can toss it if you don't follow the rules.

I prefer to do all my due diligence up front. Make sure I understand the scope of my issue (is it real or imagined, preference or principle, objective or subjective), make sure my case is justified and defend-able, and ultimately whether it should be couched as a formal complaint or simply an appeal.

In some cases, my due diligence may lead me to not pursue the issue at all. I need to make sure it is worthy of the time I am asking the Session to devote to it. I absolutely don't want to send them anything that is frivolous or trivial. They have enough on their plates, and if I can overlook it, I should.
JACK K, do you mean by 'correcting announcement' just asking them to post a new statement that says 'correction' at the top? I would not be opposed to that option. I am not defining how they communicate the error to the congregation. I don't even care if they mention usurpation or the complaint. I just want the BCO to be followed and properly communicated.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
What I mean is that if your elders have done something that bothers you, usually the first step is simply to let them know informally that their action bothers you. Rather than setting out from the start to build a formal case you imagine taking to presbytery, you might start with something friendlier.

They might be unaware that you are still bothered. They might think you're satisfied with the changes they made. If you aren't—let's say you think their wording should have been different, or their posture should have been more repentant, or their eventual adherence to the BCO should have been more sincere and robust—you should gently let them know so that they have an opportunity to shepherd you and the rest of the congregation better, to repent if needed, etc. For you to jump straight into scheming about what approach might give you the best case against them at presbytery is not really the way your relationship with your elders ought to work.

I suppose maybe there's a history of animosity I don't know about, or a long pattern of your elders ignoring the BCO in similar situations that have been brought to their attention in the past. But if it really is just a matter of someone not communicating as fully as you'd like (maybe they failed to include a phrase like, "We had it pointed out to us that we weren't correctly following PCA rules, so we are changing the process as follows..." when you think they should have owned up to that, or maybe it seems to you like they might still be trying to hide from the congregation procedures they ought to be highlighting), then a respectful conversation with an elder might be the place to start.

If that doesn't satisfy you and you end up believing they have effectively skirted Presbyterian policy by underhandedly doing their best to keep BCO rules a secret, I would think you might have a good argument for a formal complaint. But I do question the idea that a formal complaint is where to start.
 

Edward

Puritanboard Commissioner
The usurpation of Congregational authority was done in the form of public, written statements that violated the BCO.
Then, at the very least, they should issue a revised statement, perhaps with a spin statement "after further study and prayer, we are issueing a revised statement", with only the revised text. Most folks aren't going to bother to prepare a Ramseyer to see what was actually changed, so the session can save face.
 

VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
An appreciative THANK YOU to all who participated in the discussion around my question.

Just to clarify, there are no large issues in our church that make communication difficult. But I had been a member of a church that basically split due to communication problems. So I am sensitive to the consequences of not establishing good lines of communication, and the importance of encouraging both Session and Congregation to engage with one another properly. And in order for me to approach the Session properly, I need to understand if any rules or standards were violated. If the rule/principle exists, I need to understand the remedy. If it is a matter of judgment, I need to bring a persuasive case for consideration. If it is a matter of preference, I can opt to ask for accommodation - or choose to set it aside altogether.

It is not always clear where an issue falls (principle/judgment/preference). My question concerned the obligations of the Session to communicate effectively with the congregation on matters that affect the congregation. My first impression was that such an important matter must be tied to a defined duty (principle). I studied to see if there was a clear duty, but didn't find any. I was hoping PB could tell me if such a defined duty existed.

For those who may wonder about why I am talking about BCO rules so much and not simply having an informal conversation with an Elder, I understand why it might not be clear. But after seeing a church crumble as I did, I learned that Elders do not speak for the Session. And if there is a problem that needs authoritative clarity, those Elders cannot authoritatively address it. There are times when a private conversation is best. But there are other times when The Session must speak.

I have concluded that communication between a Session and Congregation is critical to maintaining trust and accountability. But there are no hard and fast rules over what or how a Session communicates, and that makes sense. Each church will be different, and it is up to each Session and Congregation to negotiate what communication should look like in their particular church. So the BCO, reasonably, does not dictate the rules of communication in that way.

We've decided to make an appeal. It needs to be sent to the Session at large because it affects the whole church. But since communication is not formally defined in the BCO, an appeal is the correct remedy rather than a complaint.

Thanks, again. I hope this discussion will help someone else in the future.
 

VACannon

Puritan Board Freshman
What I mean is that if your elders have done something that bothers you, usually the first step is simply to let them know informally that their action bothers you. Rather than setting out from the start to build a formal case you imagine taking to presbytery, you might start with something friendlier.

They might be unaware that you are still bothered. They might think you're satisfied with the changes they made. If you aren't—let's say you think their wording should have been different, or their posture should have been more repentant, or their eventual adherence to the BCO should have been more sincere and robust—you should gently let them know so that they have an opportunity to shepherd you and the rest of the congregation better, to repent if needed, etc. For you to jump straight into scheming about what approach might give you the best case against them at presbytery is not really the way your relationship with your elders ought to work.

I suppose maybe there's a history of animosity I don't know about, or a long pattern of your elders ignoring the BCO in similar situations that have been brought to their attention in the past. But if it really is just a matter of someone not communicating as fully as you'd like (maybe they failed to include a phrase like, "We had it pointed out to us that we weren't correctly following PCA rules, so we are changing the process as follows..." when you think they should have owned up to that, or maybe it seems to you like they might still be trying to hide from the congregation procedures they ought to be highlighting), then a respectful conversation with an elder might be the place to start.

If that doesn't satisfy you and you end up believing they have effectively skirted Presbyterian policy by underhandedly doing their best to keep BCO rules a secret, I would think you might have a good argument for a formal complaint. But I do question the idea that a formal complaint is where to start.
It's not that I am 'scheming about what approach might give [me] the best case against them'. It's about challenging myself on the merits of my own concerns before I take them to my Session. My initial thought was that a Session would be somehow obligated to communicate publicly when they broke a rule publicly. I didn't want to take that to them without being sure it had merit. So I posted the question here asking if they have such a duty, and what rules would support that position.

I certainly wanted to be kind and respectful, regardless of the conclusions I came to. Even if we had decided to write a complaint, that action does not require a hateful or gotcha attitude.

And you must remember that an Elder cannot speak for the Session. If a matter requires a vote or action of the Session, I would prefer to speak to the Session at large and present my case that way rather than have an Elder try to translate my concern for me. If it is clarity or explanation I am looking for, or if a matter is one of personal preference, a private conversation with an Elder would likely resolve it. But before I can figure out what action is appropriate, I must first evaluate my own position. If I cannot prove my case to myself, I shouldn't even bother my Session with it.

I can see why any discussion about formal complaints might set some people on edge. And I will certainly talk to my Session to make sure they understand my motives. But I still prefer formal communication when it is appropriate. I think, in such cases, that the less ambiguity there is, the better. It's not an emotional position I take, and I would think Elders would prefer clarity so they are free to be objective about the merits. And if I make my case well and document it clearly, they won't have to spend very much time on it. Seems like a win-win to me!
 

Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
I believe you need to do a "Complaint" instead of an "Appeal". An appeal has to do with a trial that has taken place, a complaint is an action of the court you disagree with, and are complaining about that action (or lack of action). You also have like 30 days or something to file that complaint.
 
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