Church Authority

Church Authority

Ross Williams


Dear Church Leaders,

I often receive questions about the authority of church leaders over financial matters and access to financial statements, systems and records.  So I thought I would provide some guidance on this topic from The Book of Discipline and other UMC publications.

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 reassurance it provides that monetary gifts are being used appropriately.  Sometimes, but certainly not always, 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 be open as often as possible. "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 Trustees, pre-school (if controlled by the church), Memorial Fund, Endowment Fund, Mission & Outreach Ministries, UMW, UMM, etc.  The committee appointed by the church to perform the audit 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 alone, makes the review of church financial statements a topic open to all members of the Church Council.

(More information on audit 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 administrative board of the church 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.  For New York, this means that they must comply with Section 621 of Not-for-Profit Corporation Law (NPCL) dealing with “Books and records; right of inspection…”  See paragraph “e” at the following link for more information:  The rights of inspection under NPCL are limited to the specific records listed in the statue but members have additional and broader rights under Common Law, subject to the discretion of a court judge.    

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.  But most importantly, the pastor has the authority to access such information (see below).   

An article explaining why the pastor should have access to records of giving can be found at the link below.  This article was written by our own George Englehardt, a former District Superintendent and President of CF&A of this Conference.    

Authority of the Pastor:
The pastor is in effect the “CEO” of the church. ¶ 244.3, of The Book of Discipline (pg 169) states:  "The pastor shall be the administrative officer and, as such, shall be an ex-officio member of all conference, boards, councils, commissions, committees, and task forces, unless otherwise restricted by the Discipline."  This means that the pastor is a member of the Finance committee and all sub-committees including stewardship and, as such, has full access to all information for each. 

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 in consultation with the District Superintendent (¶ 247.13)
  • Elects the Chair of Church Council and Chair and members of: Board of Trustees, Committee on Nominations, Committee on Pastor-Parish relations, Committee on Finance including Financial Secretary and Church Treasurer (¶ 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 Guidelines – Church Council, Connecting Vision and Ministry in Your Church,  GCFA, 2012,
 Pastor-Parish Relations Committee:
  • Reports to the Charge Conference (¶ 244.1)
  • 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)
  • For more information on the role and activities of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, see Guidelines – Pastor-Parish Relations, Connecting the Pastor, Staff and Congregation,  GCFA, 2012,
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, see Guidelines – Trustees, Managing the Resources of the Congregation, GCFA 2012
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 Guidelines – Finance, Handling God’s Money in the Church, GCFA, 2012.
Nominations Committee
  • Reports to the Charge Conference (¶ 244.1)
  • Pastor is Chair (¶ 258.1.c)
  • Lay Leader is a member (¶ 258.1.c)
  • For more information on the role and activities of the Nominating Committee see Guidelines – Nominations and Leadership Development, Empowering Spiritual Leaders for the Mission of the Church,  GCFA, 2012,
  1. Guidelines – Trustees, Managing the Resources of the Congregation, GCFA, 2012. 
  2. The Local Church Audit Guide, GCFA, 2014, Available at:

Please note:  This communication is intended to provide concise and in some cases 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.  The Book of Discipline is available online at: