Church Authority & Secrecy

Church Authority & Secrecy

Ross Williams


Dear Church Leaders,

I often receive questions about the authority of church leaders over financial matters and access to financial statements, systems, meetings and records.  Listed below is guidance on these topics from The Book of Discipline and other UMC publications.  The Book of Discipline is available online at

One of the hallmarks of our denomination is a structure and practice of openness, transparency and inclusion with respect to almost all church matters.  Transparency with financial matters builds trust between the congregation and the various committees and leaders that are elected to govern the church.  Full transparency can result in greater financial stewardship through the assurance it provides that monetary gifts are being used appropriately.  Sometimes a reluctance to share financial information can point to more serious problems such as the desire to exert control or poor management of scarce resources.  In the worst cases, it can be an attempt to conceal theft or fraud.     

Meetings:  The Book of Discipline (¶ 722) requires that meetings generally be open. "In the spirit of openness and accountability, all meetings of councils, boards, agencies, commissions, and committees of the Church at all levels of the church, including subunit meetings and teleconferences, shall be open…Portions of a meeting may be closed for consideration of specific subjects if such a closed session is authorized by an affirmative public vote of at least three-fourths of the voting members present...Great restraint should be used in closing meetings; closed sessions should be used as seldom as possible...."   Per ¶ 258.2.e, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee is the only committee that is required to be closed:  "The committee shall meet in closed session, and information shared in the committee shall be confidential."

This language is clear that meetings should be open by default and only closed for very compelling reasons.  An example of the need for a closed session might be a discussion by the Board of Trustees of negotiations to purchase real estate (any real estate purchase or sale must ultimately be approved by the Charge Conference, Pastor and District Superintendent). 

Financial Records:  Per ¶ 258.4.d of The Book of Discipline all financial statements of the church and all its organizations and accounts are required to undergo an annual audit.  Included in this definition are the activities of the Church Treasurer / Financial Secretary, Trustees, Preschool (if controlled by the church), Memorial Funds, Endowment Funds, Mission & Outreach Ministries, UMM, etc.  The Finance committee must provide a “full and complete report to the annual Charge Conference”.  The membership of the Charge Conference includes all members of the Church Council.  So this requirement makes the review of church financial statements a topic open to all members of the Church Council.

(More information on requirements can be found in ¶ 258.4.d. through h) of The Book of Discipline and in The Local Church Audit Guide, (see note 2).

Generally speaking, no church entity, committee or subcommittee should keep financial statements and records related to their activities secret.  This does not mean that certain sensitive information, such as salaries and financial gifts, cannot be kept private.  But there must be a compelling reason to do so.  As an example, the Church Council has the right to see, understand and question the financial statements of the Trustees. 

Furthermore, churches are generally incorporated under religious and Not-for Profit corporate law in the state they reside.  This means they must comply with statutes permitting access and rights of inspection to books and records.

Stewardship Records:  Details of financial giving by member should be kept private and only shared with those that have “a need to know”.  Those having such a need are the Financial Secretary, the Pastor and sometimes members of the Finance Committee (for example, to facilitate a capital campaign).  A concern sometimes raised is that a Pastor’s ministry may somehow be biased if they are aware of such details.  In reality, an individual’s financial discipleship is part of their faith journey, and both are a vital component of pastoral ministry.  Financial giving is an important sign of one’s faith, as are prayer, church attendance and involvement in the church’s ministries.  A change in a member’s giving (either up or down) is a pastoral concern.  An increase in giving can be an opportunity to say “thank you”.  A decrease in giving may indicate a broader pastoral concern, such as a job loss or family difficulty.  Per paragraph 340.2.c.2.c of The Book of Discipline, the pastor has the authority to access such information.

Authority of the Pastor:
The pastor should be viewed as the "Servant Leader", of the church, leading the people of God in worship, prayer and to faith in Jesus Christ by exercising pastoral supervision and by organizing the church to be effective in mission.  The pastor as Servant Leader should be aware of and responsible for everything related to the business of the church.  Specific duties of pastors can be found in Paragraph 340.2.c in The Book of Discipline.  Paragraph 244.3 states:  "The pastor shall be the administrative officer and, as such, shall be an ex-officio member of all conferences, boards, councils, commissions, committees, and task forces, unless otherwise restricted by the Discipline."  This means that the pastor is a member of all committees and sub-committees and, as such, has full access to information for each.  The pastor's authority is not all-encompassing.  They are subject to the governance structures of the church such as oversight by the Pastor/Parish Relations Committee and to other checks and balances.  For example, while the pastor has a right to question and understand all financial matters of the church, they should play no role in personally managing them.  While the exact boundaries of pastoral authority may be hard to define, my personal opinion is that no one person, clergy or laity, has the authority to make unilateral decisions of significance for the church in isolation.  There are both limits on what a pastor can do as well as greater limits on what congregational leaders can do absent pastoral approval.   

Sale of Real Estate:
The sale of real estate is governed by paragraphs 2540 & 2541 of The Book of Discipline.  Any purchase and sale must be pre-approved by the Charge Conference, Pastor, District Superintendent and District Board of Church Location and Building.   Per paragraph 2543, the proceeds from the sale of real estate are restricted in their use.

Authority and Membership of Bodies and Committees: 

Charge Conference:

  • The ultimate governing body of the church 
  • Pastor is the Administrative Officer (¶ 244.3)
  • Meets at least annually (¶ 246.1) and District Superintendent presides (¶ 246.5)
  • Special sessions (additional meetings) may be called by District Superintendent or by the Pastor with the permission of the District Superintendent.  (¶ 246.7)
  • Must be announced at least ten days in advance (¶ 246.8)      
  • Members include all members of Church Council (¶ 246.2)
  • Members present and voting constitute a quorum (¶ 246.6)
  • Has general oversight of the Church Council (¶ 247.1)
  • Sets the compensation of the Pastor based upon recommendation from the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and in consultation with the District Superintendent (¶ 247.13)
  • Elects: a) Chair of Church Council, b) Chair and members of the Committee on Pastor-Parish relations, Committee on Finance including the Financial Secretary and Church Treasurer, c) members of the Board of Trustees and Committee on Nominations, (¶ 249.1-4)
Church Conference:
  • Another (optional) form of a Charge Conference, which includes all members of the church
  • All members present have a vote
  • Can be called by the District Superintendent upon request of the pastor, church council or 10% (or greater) of members (¶ 248)
  • Conducts all the business of a Charge Conference
Church Council: 
  • Reports to the Charge Conference (¶ 244.1)
  • Pastor is the Administrative Officer (¶ 244.3)
  • Functions as the Executive agency of the Charge Conference (¶ 244.1)
  • Members include:  The Pastor, Chair, Lay Leader, Chair of PPR, Finance & Board of Trustees, Church Treasurer, Lay Member to Annual Conference, Presidents of UMW and UMM, a young adult and a representative of United Methodist Youth (¶ 252.5)
  • Only church members may vote (¶ 244.3)
  • Approves the annual budget (¶ 258.4)
  • Approves the selection of banks for deposits (¶ 258.4)
  • Members present and voting constitute a quorum (¶ 252.6)
  • For more information on the role and activities of the Church Council, see
 Pastor-Parish Relations Committee:
  • Reports to the Charge Conference (¶ 244.1)
  • Meets at least quarterly (¶ 258.2.e)
  • Meetings are closed and information shared is confidential (¶ 258.2.e)
  • Meets only with knowledge of the Pastor and/or District Superintendent (¶ 258.2.e)
  • Pastor is present at each meeting unless they voluntarily excuse themselves (¶ 258.2.e)
  • May meet with the District Superintendent without the pastor present.  Pastor must be made aware of the meeting in advance and be advised about it immediately thereafter (¶ 258.2.e)
  • For more information on the role and activities of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, see
Board of Trustees:
  • Reports to the Charge Conference (¶ 244.1)
  • Membership cannot exceed nine or be fewer than three (¶ 2525)
  • Always subject to the direction of the Charge Conference (¶ 2529)
  • Receives guidance from the charge conference before acting for the church (1)
  • Responsible for taking the recommendations of the trustees to the church council for approval and action (1)
  • Empowered to spend money that has been budgeted but should consult with the Finance Committee and Church Treasurer before committing unbudgeted funds (1)  
  • For more information on the role and activities of the Board of Trustees
Finance Committee:
  • Reports to the Charge Conference (¶ 244.1)
  • Pastor is Ex-officio member (¶ 244.3)
  • Prepares the annual budget (approved by Church Council) (¶ 258.4)
  • Makes provision for an annual audit of financial statements of church and ALL organizations and accounts (¶ 258.4.d)
  • Receives a written copy of the completed Audit Report (2)
  • Makes a full and complete audit report to the Charge Conference.  (¶ 258.4.d)
  • Audit performed by an audit committee, which must exclude: Treasurer, Financial Secretary, Pastor, Finance Chair, Business Manager, Church Secretary and those who count offerings.  Must also exclude relatives of those serving in these roles.  Alternative to an Audit Committee is to engage an independent CPA firm.  (¶ 258.4.d) 
  • Must prepare an annual report to the Church Council of all designated funds separate from the expense budget (¶ 258.4.h)
  • For more information on the role and activities of the Finance Committee see
Nominations Committee
  1. Guidelines – Trustees, Managing the Resources of the Congregation, GCFA, 2016. 
  2. The Local Church Audit Guide, GCFA,  Available at

Please note:  This communication is intended to provide concise and abbreviated references to The Book of Discipline.  If you are in doubt or have questions about any citations please consult The Book of Discipline and let me know of inaccuracies or omissions in this communication.