Episcopal Diocese of Washington
Governance - Parish Bylaws
Parish Bylaws FAQs
We recommend that you thoroughly review your parish bylaws at least once every ten years. If you can't find them, then it's been way too long and they are probably out of date. They may also use terms that are no longer defined by canon.
Why have parish bylaws?
As a corporation, you are required to have bylaws. They describe the rules by which your members agree to live and govern themselves.
Who should have a copy?
The parish office and the vestry at a minimum. Be sure any new rector or vestry member has a copy. Clergy from other dioceses may be used to other ways of doing things and different diocesan canons. You are also required to have the latest copy on file with the Governance Office of the Diocese.
Who should work on reviewing or re-writing bylaws?
It is helpful but not essential to have a lawyer in your congregation work on this. Many churches put together a small group that try to include a lawyer and a vestry member. You can get assistance by contacting the Governance Officer of the Diocese. She is happy to work with and meet with the bylaws committee or vestry.
When should we contact the Diocese about this?
We recommend that you contact the Governance Officer at the beginning of the process, not just at the end. Assistance can take the form of reviewing current language, helping to define terms, plan how to talk to the congregation, etc. Another set of eyes is always a good idea.
What should we include in the bylaws, and can we say whatever we want in them?
See Canon 25 of the Diocesan Canons – this lays out things you either must have or gives you some options. NOTE: your bylaws must conform to the Diocesan Canons and the National Canons.
We don't follow what the bylaws say anyway, so why bother to re-write them?
This will come back and bite you in time. All families have disagreements, and a congregation is no different. In stressful times, non-conformance to bylaws can split a church apart with suspicion. It's much better to follow your bylaws, or change the bylaws to match an updated practice.
How long will the process take?
It will probably take several months to do if the bylaws aren't too outdated. It can take minimum of a year otherwise.
How do new bylaws get adopted once they've been re-drafted?
The congregation is the body that approves them. You are required to send out the changes with an explanation to all voting members of your parish no later than 30 days before the annual meeting or special meeting at which they will be voted on. However, if there are some substantive changes, we advise that you present the ideas behind those changes for discussion at a more informal meeting of the parish so that the bylaws committee and the vestry can get feedback before presenting the final version for a vote.
Key issues to discuss
The most difficult and most important issues to address in the bylaws are: who can vote; contributor of record; who can serve on the vestry; vestry terms. There is no perfect solution for any of these, but we recommend getting advice and experience from the Governance Office of the Diocese. Download membership definitions [pdf].
Things to beware of
- A common pitfall is to try to fix a pastoral situation with law. You need to address the pastoral situation and out of it, see if you need to fix the law. Some very bad law is made in reaction to a particular bad experience. You need to step back and see what makes sense in the long-term and whether or not you're inadvertently creating another problem. For example, you may have had a disruptive person who simply contributed one dollar in order to be a contributor of record. Be careful you don't over-react and go too far in the other direction and end up penalizing someone who has just lost his job and is caring for aging parents or has kids in college.
- Another pitfall is putting some things in bylaws that really belong in a procedure manual. Expectations of vestry members belong in conversation or covenant. What kind of pew-racks do not belong in bylaws. With all the electronic means of communication, things that need to be circulated (like notice of annual meeting, information on nominees, etc.) can be communicated in many ways. Your bylaws should be general enough to allow various forms of communication, but specific enough to be sure that everyone does in fact get notified.
If you have any questions on this section, please contact Ann V. Talty, Governance Officer, or call her at (202)537-6548.