A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Congregational Bylaws
Bylaws exist to support and enhance the functioning of the congregation. Good bylaws provide good process.
Bylaws are important in laying the groundwork for any organization. Although written in language to satisfy legal requirements, bylaws also encapsulate the vision, hopes, and dreams of the congregation. They help guide the congregational board, as well as deal with infrequent situations such as the calling of a minister and the purchasing of real estate. They are also a last resort in cases of disagreement on legal matters.
For all members, bylaws provide a part of the roadmap for getting involved in key decision making, which is particularly important to groups in historically marginalized communities.
Emerging Practices in Writing Bylaws
The Bylaws provide the formal structure of your congregation and allow for maintaining and changing that structure. Bylaws hold the highest level of authority of congregational guiding documents.
Bylaws do not need to include every matter of policy. Because bylaws are generally amended only through congregational meetings, nimble congregations will create policies, operating guidelines and procedures that stand apart from the bylaws to govern day-to-day matters. These can be amended more easily as needs evolve and change.
Who You Are
Choosing or changing the name of the congregation is an important decision, for it will help shape the congregation's vision and image.
The purpose provision of the bylaws distinguishes the congregation from other institutions in the community and sets out the basic parameters for all the activity of the congregation.
Spelling out membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in a congregation's bylaws clearly defines the congregation as a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
The minimum requirements for congregational membership should be included in the bylaws. Specific details about these requirements can be articulated in policies and updated as needed.
Some congregations want more flexibility in how they approach membership. For the purpose of the bylaws, it's important to clarify who has voting rights.
Bylaws should include two different provisions for removing people from membership. One is for people who have drifted away. The other is for removing a member for cause.
A decision by vote in a congregational meeting is the highest expression of the congregation's authority. UU congregations generally reserve only major decisions for the membership as a whole.
How meetings are conducted--quorum, voting percentages, and model of group deliberation--reflects your theology, expectations of membership, and commitment to welcome and inclusion.
The governing board is the fiduciary agent for the congregation, operating as a single unit in service of the congregation's mission.
Transparency and communication are essential for board meetings. Determine quorum, voting provisions and how to communicate decisions.
Committees of the Congregation
The only committees that need to be articulated in the bylaws are committees that are accountable to the congregation as a whole. These are usually limited to nominating committees, sometimes endowment committees, and the Settled Minister Search Committee.
Defining the role of the minister is one of the most unique aspects of congregational bylaws. Ministry being a covenantal relationship between called minister and congregation, the details are organic and evolving.
Very few things that a congregation does affect it as greatly, or are as important, as the choice of a minister. Wonderful ministerial-congregational matches provide new life and purpose to an institution and help lead both parties well into the future.
Congregations should include bylaws provisions that enable the congregation to terminate the covenantal relationship when the trust and confidence in the minister has been compromised or eroded.
The Bylaws of the UUA require that to be affiliated with the UUA all congregations must have a dissolution clause in their bylaws.
If you are proposing bylaws for a new congregation, you may wish to include a provision dealing with their initial adoption.
All bylaws need to be amended from time to time. Ideas and thoughts change, and new situations arise that need to be addressed in the bylaws. Bylaws should include provisions on how they can be amended.