Problematic Sections Within the Normal Parish By-Laws

Today we welcome our dear guest, Archpriest Yaroslav Belikov, a priest of the Dormition Monastery in Novo-Diveevo.  Fr. Yaroslav, a graduate of our own Holy Trinity Seminary, has been a priest for twenty-five years and has naturally been obliged to work within the framework of the Normal Parish By-Laws all this time.  I have to say that personally I have a great deal of sympathy with the Normal Parish By-Laws, but then again I am not a priest, or serve within a parish setting, so my attitude is purely academic. I value  the fact that the By-Laws were adopted by the All-Russian Local Council and that they give much scope for creative work within a given community.  However, to get a more realistic picture, I wanted to interview Fr. Yaroslav who lives and works by these Parish By-Laws and for whom they are a daily reality.

Thank you.  Of course, the Normal Parish By-Laws are  essential to our parish life.  When everything is fine, it’s all fine and there is no need for any by-laws. But when problems arise,  such as complaints or demands from a particular group ‑  be it the priest, the church warden or the parishioners ‑  the Parish By-Laws are very helpful because they put everything in context.   That is why it is extremely important that we follow these by-laws from the very start.  This is first thing I have to say.  On the other hand, our Parish By-Laws contain serious errors and internal contradictions, which prevent…

Yes, inaccuracies.

inaccuracies, which make adherence to the by-laws problematic.   A situation arises when people begin to question this or another point, and because we have these contradictions and omissions, it ends up being a serious problem.

Father, you have also mentioned certain situations when there is some ambiguity in interpretation and that in the face of existing conflict, these ambiguities can become time bombs, so to say.

Yes, this is very unpleasant.

… or landmines – I am sorry to use such terms.  I can imagine the sort of critical situations that can arise in parishes.

Yes, when some people start arguing, they latch on to a single word out of context and ignore the other, contradictory,  sections. Then we have a serious problem.

Could you illustrate what you mean?

Yes, yes. For example, there is some lack of clarity.  I will give you a couple of examples.  Paragraph no. 12 describes the procedure for accepting new parish members and states that the Parish Council examines each such petition and confirms it. But if it has the right to confirm applications, surely it also has the right not to confirm them?  On what basis would that happen? There are no explanations as to the grounds which could give rise to a rejection of somebody’s application for membership.

Para no. 15 mentions Trustees. Who are these Trustees? What are their duties or entitlements?  These things aren’t mentioned at all.

It says in para 19, for instance, that the Annual General Assembly appoints the Auditing Committee or the Editorial Committee.  At the same time, para. 23 states that the minutes of   the Annual General Meeting are kept by the Secretary to the Parish Council.  So it is unclear who in fact keeps track of the deliberations.

Para. 22 describes the process by which resolutions are adopted by the General Assembly but what about questions which are not even open to debate?  For example when somebody says ‘This rector isn’t suitable’ or ‘This priest won’t do for us’, this is a totally different problem and should be solved in a different way.  Yet there is nothing about this in the Normal Parish By-Laws.

The election of parish officers is discussed in paras. 28 and 29 and again the situation is unclear.  It says that the Annual General Meeting elects the Secretary , the Treasurer and from two to five members of the Parish Council – this of course depends on the size of the parish.  Again, there is lack of consistency.  Suppose there are three candidates to the post of Treasurer;  one is elected and the other two are not.  But the two unelected candidates  could have been very useful on the Parish Council.  Would it not make more sense to appoint from four to seven ordinary council members and then allow the Council to choose the Secretary and Treasurer from their own ranks?  But this is not mentioned anywhere.  These kinds of omissions often create problems.  Reserve members are also mentioned but no word as to how and under what conditions they become full members.

Para 30  says that the keeping of the parish register is within the competency of the Parish Council.  What about the Secretary’s duties?  The same is said about  the keeping of parish books and of the lists of those making confession.  But this is hardly a matter for the parish council, not to mention that…

Not to mention the fact that all these rules most probably originate from Tsarist Russia and it’s worth asking ourselves whether we still need these today… I mean a list of actual names.

Para 31 which is concerned with the Rector’s duties, says a number of times that the Rector monitors. Then again, it says that the Rector is responsible.   So in effect, he monitors the work of, say the Secretary or the Treasurer, but remains responsible for both?  What if the Rector disagrees with some action?   Especially since it says in para 38 that all matters shall be decided by simple majority vote, while in case of a tie, the vote of the Rector shall prevail.  What if the majority vote for something to which the Rector is completely opposed?  After all, he has to answer to the Diocesan authorities.  Of course, the Rector can be wrong in certain cases, we are all human after all, but there are other ways to influence the Rector’s decision; for example by way of an appeal.  The possibility of an appeal to the Diocesan authorities against a decision by the parish council is mentioned.  But this makes it unclear: is the Rector responsible or is he not?   These are my main points…

So, going down, we see that in para 34, the duties of the Treasurer are outlined.  Then in paras. 51 and 52, the monetary parish funds are detailed.  Why not amalgamate them all?  Again, unless we take great care, there are inconsistencies and ambiguities which could have serious consequences.  This is how problems arise:  two factions become locked in conflict with each other advancing their arguments  i according to different paragraphs of the Parish By-Laws.

The preparation of reports, as mentioned  in para. 35, is very strange.  Both the Secretary and the Rector read out reports at the annual meeting.  So, again there are contradictions.

Para 43 mentions the Parish ssisterhood, but then again we also have a Church Warden. Who is responsible for parish property?  Here we have the usual lack of clarity;  which aspects of property is the Warden in charge of? Is the Church Warden merely a kind of foreman?  On the other hand, we have the Sisterhood… This ambiguity is just asking for trouble, when conflict erupts between the Sisterhood and the Warden who turns out to be surplus to requirements.  It would make matters much simpler if we could define respective functions clearly.

Paras 48 and 49 discuss various activities and how the money is spent.   It is important to define this; certain matters are within the competence of the Annual General Meeting, such as the acquisition of property for example.  We are talking about large sums of money ‑  a big loan or an advance  ‑ and the Parish Council can’t decide such things by themselves.  This is a matter for the the Annual General Meeting or the Extraordinary Parish Meeting, rather than the Parish Council, which is only a small group of people, albeit elected by the Annual Meeting.  It’s important to be clear  as to what falls within the competence of the Annual General Meeting.  The parish council can make recommendations, such as ‘Let’s buy this plot of land’. But this is a lot of money and the whole parish should make this decision.

This is a strong point.

That’s why these paragraphs should be grouped together within the Meetings of the Parish Council section.  I have a few other observations.  They may not be so important but I think are worth noting.  We are told that all records and books must be kept in accordance with the forms provided by the Diocesan Authorities. But these forms do not exist.  When we ask the diocese, we are told that they don’t have any such forms.  The Diocese should either remove the references to these forms from the Normal Parish By-Laws or start providing them.  These are the sort of problems we have.

Thank you, Fr. Yaroslav. What is your general attitude to the Normal Parish By-Laws?

My attitude is wholly positive. Nevertheless, I think there are some errors which should be corrected, because they can make parish life difficult when problems arise.  And coupled, in the first place, with our pride, our love of self and lust for power…

Unfortunately, what we need is documentation.  There should be a rule of law…  As far as the clergy are concerned, I have the impression that many of our priests have negative feelings towards the Normal Parish By-Laws.  They tend to regard them as a direct challenge if not to the priest’s authority, at least to his rights as a priest.

I have not observed this attitude.

You haven’t come across this?

No, I haven’t.  On the contrary, I feel the By-Laws are helpful.  I have only this to add.  Sometimes, certain parishioners or a group of parishioners assume some kind of spiritual authority and begin to interfere with matters which have nothing to do with them.  On the other hand, some priests rule their parish like a dictatorship and they need to be curbed somehow.  Yet again, you can have a situation where a bishop likes to get involved in the minutiae of parish life – when there is no need for him to do this.  It is better for parishioners to collect money in response to a real need, rather than to a directive from above with no reference to the realities of parish life.  That’s the function of the Normal Parish By-Laws ‑  to limit any individual power, but they must also make it clear how to act in difficult situations, when, for example, the Parish Council or the Annual General Meeting disagrees with the Rector, or the Rector disagrees with the parish.  These sort of conflicts must be resolved  and it is important to have written guidelines for doing so: How do we proceed? Who can arbitrate in this situation?  Of course, the final arbiter should be the diocesan hierarch, but there are still many errors which must be fixed.

Thank you, Fr Yaroslav.  This was most interesting and important, and I am grateful to you for this conversation, which I think will be useful for many people.

To the glory of God!

APPENDIX: Commentary and notes on the Normal Parish By-Laws (NPB)

No.1
The following details should be appended to the information about all newly-established parishes:  when  and by whose blessing the parish was  inaugurated, who supplied the antimension and chrism

It should be added in the notes that the ruling bishop  may close the parish.

No.8
As it would be awkward for the rector to discuss his own salary, accommodation, insurance and other forms of financial support with the parish, these negotiations should be conducted by the dean or the diocesan secretary  and  then confirmed by the ruling bishop.  Any financial agreement with the parish should factor in periodic salary increases, allowing for inflation and in consideration of the length of the  priest’s  service (as mentioned briefly in No.10)

No.12
Enrolment of new parishioners.

What are the criteria for refusing admission?

A sample parishioner admission form would be welcome.

No.13. Note 1
Question:  what if some parishes have a different tradition of raising funds other than the membership dues ?

Delete “newly” at the beginning of the sentence ‑  it makes the statement unclear.

No.15
Define “trustees”.  What are their rights and responsibilities?

No.18
The Annual Parish Assembly shall be convened with the blessing of the ruling bishop.

No.19
Add a note to the effect that all meetings shall be conducted pursuant to the provisions of Robert’s Rules of Order

The explanation of the function of the vice-president should form a separate paragraph  or a note.  The protocol for conducting the Annual General Meeting should be more fully explained, and  the functions of the auditing and editing committees confirmed (No.23 states that the minutes are kept by the parish secretary, whereas No.24 places this within the competence of the editing committee)

No.21
Note 2  “must of his own accord remove himself from participation in the Meeting” should be replaced with “shall lose his right to participate in the Meeting”

No.22
It should be explained what subjects are not open to debate as a matter of course.

No.23 and No.24 are self-contradictory, appointing the secretary and the editing committee respectively for the  same job.

No.24
It is not made sufficiently clear that the decisions of the Annual General Meeting come into force only upon their confirmation by the ruling bishop, and that he has the right to alter or overrule any of resolution made by the AGM.

No.25
Addendum to b) c) d) & e): the Extraordinary Parish Meetings is convened with the blessing of the ruling bishop and with due cause.

No.28  & No.29:
The procedure for electing the treasurer and secretary is not made sufficiently clear.  Are they elected at the AGM specifically to fulfil these roles, or does the AGM elect “from two to five lay members of the parish” cf  g) PLUS two extra members, i.e from four to eight people, and then the Parish Council itself  appoints a treasurer and a secretary from their own ranks?

The AGM will also elect one or two reserve members (from among those who have not received enough votes to be elected to the PC proper) who will assume full parish councillor duties  in the event of any member of the parish council being unable to carry out his or her responsibilities.

No. 29:
d) Should not the secretary be responsible for the  keeping of parish books?

d) Should not the rector be responsible for the keeping of the lists of those making confession?

No. 31
According to  f), g), i) & l), the rector “supervises” but in j)he is “responsible”

[the English wording  is less of a contrast than the Russian “наблюдает” v “является ответственным”,-you could use other synonyms in English,  but I kept to the  authorised text]

If the rector is truly “responsible”, it would be best for him also “to instruct” cf. e), f) & l) which could also imply the ability  to delegate this responsibility  to the church warden or another  parish officer.   Supervision, however, can be understood in the narrow sense of being merely an outside observer without the right to intervene.  If that is the case, how can the rector be said to be “responsible”?

No.34
a) “the form prescribed by the Diocesan Authorities”?

c) should not the rector sign every  parish check? What are the rector’s role and responsibilities?

This section should be reconciled with Nos 51-53 which deal with financial matters.

No. 35
b) the minutes of the Annual and Extraordinary Parish Meetings are kept by the editing committee of which the secretary to the parish council must presumably also be a member.

c) These days, it is simpler for the agenda to be sent out electronically by the rector, so here, one can say that the secretary assists in distributing the agenda to all parish meetings.

e) preparation of reports: Does the secretary present the report at the AGM?

Notes:  what are these “forms provided by the Diocesan Authorities”?

No. 36
Addendum: d) in the event of incapacity of a parish councillor, his or her duties will be assumed by a reserve member who will be deemed to be a full member of the PC until the next AGM.

No. 37
Addendum: the question of the quorum. Who must be done if the meeting is not quorate?  It is often impossible to convene a parish council meeting in the summer, when parish activity is low and many councillors are away on vacation.

No.38
What should be the course of action, if the parish council’s majority decision is fundamentally unacceptable to the rector who nevertheless has to be responsible for it before his diocesan authorities?

No.39
Nowadays, the minutes are kept electronically.  Is the minutes’ book still necessary?

No.41
Is it essential to conduct biannual audits? [reference to the audit being twice a year is missing from No. 41  of the English version of the NPB]

Would an annual audit be sufficient?

No.43
Delineate areas of domestic responsibilities pertaining to the sisterhood and the church warden.

Nos. 48, 49, 50
Here it would be expedient to clarify which activities fall within the competence of the PC (day-to-day housekeeping concerns, redecorating, cleaning, paying bills etc) and which must have a prior authorisation by the AGM (church building, the acquisition and selling of property, substantial building extension or renovations, considerable loans or  borrowing, procurement of new parish clergy etc)

This paragraph is better placed within the section dealing with the meetings of the parish Council.

No.56
The closing of the parish can likewise take place by the direction of the ruling bishop, which fact should also be noted in No. 1.

Source: Conducted by Deacon Andrei Psarev

6 thoughts on “Problematic Sections Within the Normal Parish By-Laws”

  1. I am disappointed by your description of the Normal Parish By-Laws as containing “serious errors and internal contradictions… which makes adherence to [them] problematic”, “time-bombs”, and “landmines”. A close comparison of the concerns raised with the actual text of the By-Laws does not substantiate such a view:

    • It is said that the role of trustees is not defined. “Trustee” is a legal term that refers to persons who hold property for the benefit of another or for others. In this case, the parish having elected trustees, the beneficiary of whatever property they hold in trust is clearly the parish. Trustees are required because parishes as unincorporated associations that have no legal identity and so cannot hold their own property;
    • With regard to the minutes of the Annual General Meeting, there is no contradiction between paragraphs 23 and 24. The Secretary is to record the minutes of the meeting, as stipulated in paragraph 23. The role of the editing committee is to confirm the minutes before they are submitted to the Ruling Bishop for ratification. The editing committee simply acts as a temporary committee of the Annual General Meeting for this purpose. This is done because confirmation of the minutes by the next Annual General Meeting is redundant, the Ruling Bishop having already ratified them;
    • Paragraph 12 of the By-Laws indicates that membership of a parish may be granted upon consideration by the Parish Council of a written application. It is contended in the interview that the By-Laws are effectively silent with regards to the criteria for membership, but this is not correct. Paragraph 11 and the annotations to that paragraph, as well as the annotation to Paragraph 1, provide guidance on this matter;
    • It is said that there are no guidelines when matters relating to the parish clergy come up at an Annual General Meeting. This is not correct. The matters that are within the competency of the Annual General Meeting are quite clearly set out in paragraph 20 and the annotations thereto. Moreover, paragraph 19 indicates that when the meeting pertains to the pastor personally, or to the suitability of the clergy, the dean or another person appointed by the Ruling Bishop should preside;
    • There is no evident contradiction between paragraph 30 and paragraph 35, which pertains to the duties of the Parish Council and the Secretary respectively, the second paragraph simply providing a specific role description;
    • There is no evident contradiction in paragraph 31. The rector supervises the Warden and Parish Council, and is also responsible for the good operation and welfare of the parish. The annotation to paragraph 1 provides the means by which misconduct on the part of parish officials can be addressed;
    • It is true that the rector could be formally outvoted by the Parish Council. One must consider the circumstances in which this could occur, however, and the matters likely to be at stake. The patient building of consensus is generally the best way for the rector to avoid the humiliation of being outvoted. A rector is ill-advised to put any matter to a vote that he is not sure of the result of. It is hard to see how this “problem” could be addressed by statutory change;
    • Paragraph 34 simply concerns the duties of the treasurer. Paragraphs 51-53 (Part VI of the By-Laws) set out specific principles for the management of parish funds, just as paragraphs (Part V) set out broad principles for the management of property in general. There is no contradiction;
    • Paragraph 35 says that the secretary will, under the supervision of the pastor, prepare the reports for Annual and Extraordinary Parish Meetings. This makes sense in that the secretary is the parish’s record-keeper and a certain ability to communicate well in writing may be assumed. The presentation or delivery of the reports is a different matter;
    • Sisterhoods have their own separate statutes. They and paragraph 43 make no mention of parish property which, as paragraph 46 indicates, are to be managed by the church Parish Council. Again, it is not clear that the problem arises in the statutes.

    It can thus be seen that every example given of “serious errors” or “internal contradictions” given in the interview is without foundation. I fear that many of your readers will not do the work of comparing the By-Laws with what is said or implied in the interview, but simply take away the view that the By-Laws are in a number of respects unhelpful to church administration.

    The statutory framework of our Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia is one of the key elements of our inheritance. Documents such as the By-Laws, far from being a relic of Tsarist Russia, were worked on in the 1950s – in the very specific circumstance of the life of the Church Abroad – by men of learning and erudition, amongst them the then Archpriest Theodore Raevsky, Rector of Saint Vladimir’s parish in Miami, Florida. Father Theodore was a pre-revolutionary graduate of the School of Jurisprudence at the Warsaw University. Interestingly, in later life, following the repose of his matushka and tonsure with the name Sava, he served as Archbishop of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand.

    Another Ruling Bishop of the Australian-New Zealand Diocese, Archbishop Theodosy (Putilin) (+1980), once remarked that “Most of that problems that I have with the clergy are because they don’t know the Normal Parish By-Laws. They need to read them!” Regrettably, this item on your otherwise excellent site both demonstrates and compounds this problem.

  2. I thank Fr James Carles for his thorough response to Fr Yaroslav Belikov’s critique of the Normal Parish Bylaws. It’s all academic for me, however. I serve a parish that has no functional bylaws and was never required to adopt them. When, after years of advocating the adoption of the Normal Parish Bylaws, I brought this up at an AGM, the proposal was rejected, with comments made that were openly disrespectful to the rector and clergy in general. My complaint is not about the minutiae of the bylaws, but that the church administration does nothing to see that they are observed, and does not support the clergy, leaving them to fend for themselves against the wolves (not sheep) in their flocks. Of course, in tiny parishes some of the details of the bylaws are simply not applicable; on the other hand, when there are no bylaws, there is polnyi proizvol – a state of anarchy in which people do whatever they want. I frequently recall the story told me by an old priest many years ago. On coming to a new parish, he was told (in Russian), Batiushka, everything will be fine with you if you just agree to observe our ustav. The priest asked, And what kind of ustav do you have? Answer: Choho my khochem (in Ukrainian dialect) – “Whatever we want.” I have found that the bylaws do not prevent either the tyranny of lay factional control or, less frequently, the dictatorship of a power-hungry priest. Bishops and deans often do not want to get involved. No one likes problems.

  3. Dear Father James,

    I know that you are very busy with your job for the Australian and New Zealand Diocese of the Russian Church Abroad, and therefore I am very grateful that you have taken the time to analyze our interview.

    I am very impressed with the quality of work conducted in your diocese promoting Parish By-Laws. The documents that you attached to your e-mail are outstanding, and I will be delighted to post them on my Web site.

    The Russian version of the interview contains an appendix that covers other points of the Parish By-Laws that have not been translated into English.

    I believe that it is fair to expect that every legally binding document be written in clear language and organized in a user-friendly way. Unfortunately, in the real world parish conflicts can be brutal, and conflicting parties deploy Parish By-Laws as weapons; hence my choice of the words “landmines” and “time bombs.”

    I am happy to see that this interview is yielding a productive discussion, and I look forward to Fr. Yaroslav’s comment.

  4. Father James provided us with very interesting comments. However, they do not, in my opinion, change the essence of the problem: Normal Parish By-Laws need to be corrected and revised in order to eliminate misunderstanding.

    We cannot expect that our priests and the majority of Parish Counsel members have any legal training whatsoever. Therefore the Normal Parish By-Laws should be written and organized in the clearest and logical way possible.

    I am repeating here what I said at the beginning of the interview: the majority of the members of the Parish Council and the majority of priests are Orthodox Christians who wish to work to build up Christ’s Church and to help people to achieve their salvation. Unfortunately, from time to time there are priests and parishioners who look for some kind of personal promotion, and begin to stir up troubles. Therefore, we need Normal Parish By-Laws in order to protect the parish, priests, parishioners and the Church. And, unfortunately, as Father German noted, some parishes completely ignore Normal Parish By-Laws, and even do not look to them for guidance. This brings us back to the same issue: ambiguities in the Normal Parish By-Laws only help to aggravate this chaos.

    Perhaps Father James has some legal education, and I am grateful to him for his comments. But is it possible to organize all paragraphs around subjects, so that we do not have to scan back and forth to review all information pertinent to a given theme?

    Let me illustrate here how the Normal Parish By-Laws can be misused. I observed as some lay people, while talking to the rector of the parish with the Normal Parish By-Laws in their hands, emphasized one point of a single paragraph, but at the same time refused to consider other paragraphs (and precisely those that Fr. James mentioned), where that point was further elucidated. And they did not want to hear any arguments or explanations regarding the fact that they were taking things out of context. There is no doubt that Normal Parish By-Laws are needed, but they have to be revised to eliminate misunderstandings and with objective that they not be exploited by legally savvy people.

  5. Dear Fathers! I thank you all for your comments, which I read not without a little sadness. Having read them, it seems to me clearer than ever that the difficulties we have are not at all in sections of the Normal Parish By-Laws, but rather in the education and confidence of our clergy and the conduct of a small number of the faithful. I will certainly share with Father Andrei some of the work done in the Australian-New Zealand Diocese to aid better understanding of and compliance with the By-Laws, and I hope that it will be helpful to others, but it must be understood that that kind of work will not in itself solve the problems described above. Rather, it is people’s behaviour that needs to change. I also fear that strongly-worded criticism of the content of our By-Laws might have aggravated rather than helped the situation. A person might now well ask, “Why should I pay attention to the By-Laws, when even clergymen and websites of the Church Abroad state that they contain serious errors?” That would indeed be a shame.

  6. Dear Father James,

    I apologize for my delayed response.

    Thank you for your comment. A full set of Fr. Yaroslav’s observations regarding the Parish By-Laws is now available in English (see above); I am waiting for your brief intro so that I may post the documents you sent online.

    I believe that the likelihood of scandalizing our flock is exaggerated. Isn’t our goal to develop Christians into a responsible nation of God? Having faced this objective, it is impossible to avoid topics that are or may turn out to be problematic.

    Readers of this Web site are not ill-intentioned. We are dealing with educated adults; they will understand.

    I ask for your blessing,

    Deacon Andrei

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