Friends, I have some special and exciting news for you about our Annual Meeting of the Congregation and Corporation of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, which is happening immediately following the Combined Worship Service at 10 a.m. this Sunday, January 28 (both will be offered in person in the Sanctuary, and livestreamed on our Facebook page and website).

I hope you’re sitting down as you’re reading this! It is my pleasure to tell you that this Sunday, during the Congregational Meeting, we are going to do something that tends to only happen once in years of meetings, and sometimes just once in decades. We are going to… consider some revisions to the Congregational Bylaws!!

Okay, I can see by your expression that this is not as exciting to you as I might have led you to believe it would be. And yes, even though I was once a Professor of Presbyterian Governance, even I don’t find this prospect an adrenaline rush, if I’m being honest. And yet it is important that we do so, because our bylaws set certain expectations and requirements that we are required to fulfill, and at this point, there are some revisions that need to happen because they are out of date in a number of ways.

In fact, the Session had recommended some changes to the bylaws back in early 2020 and attempted to deal with them in the same congregational meeting in which we elected the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee that ultimately nominated the Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton to come serve among us. However, this was in March 2020, during the beginning of the pandemic, and the congregation understandably decided to postpone dealing with the bylaw changes in that meeting due to the overwhelming pressure of those developments. Unfortunately, that has meant that the bylaws have grown even more out of date since then, and we need to act now to bring them into line with our current needs as a congregation.

If you attend the Annual Meeting on Sunday (after our Combined Worship service at 10 a.m.), you will receive a copy of the proposed bylaws changes. In the meantime, to try and simplify things, let me explain what these changes are designed to accomplish.

First, for some reason, there are whole chunks of the PC(USA) Book of Order repeated in the bylaws; this is both redundant, since the Book of Order is binding on us as a congregation, and cumbersome, as it makes the bylaws longer and more complicated than necessary. So these revisions delete those repetitions and make clear that the bylaws are neither competing with nor repeating the provisions of the Book of Order.

Second, there are several places that update the bylaws concerning the use of technology in the governance of the church. For example, Zoom or other interactive video technology were not envisioned by the existing bylaws, yet have become a standard means of us meeting in recent years. Email, on the other hand, was envisioned but was inadequately defined in terms of what it could and could not be used for. So there are proposed revisions to clarify those issues.

Third, there is a “shift of minimums” in terms of things like how many Elders on Session or Deacons on the Board of Deacons or members of the Congregational Nominating Committee, or how often the Session has to meet, etc. We currently exceed the proposed minimums, which is as it should be, but the old minimums envisioned a 3000 member church, which we are not and had not been even before the schism. So this brings things into a more realistic spectrum for us.

Finally, there are small miscellaneous changes designed to articulate or clarify minor issues like how to appoint a clerk if the Clerk of Session is unavailable for a Congregational Meeting, giving slightly greater flexibility to when Congregational Meetings have to take place or new officers need to be installed, etc. These are designed to keep the spirit and intention of the original provisions while giving some clarity in process and “grace space” in terms of precise calendar requirements.

Granted, this is not the most exciting work, but it is important, so please do take a few moments to read through these proposals and come prepared to ask questions, discuss recommendations, and vote on the proposed changes this Sunday. See you there!

Grace and Peace,