Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.
The Alabama Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a pastor who had resigned his position could later retract his resignation.
At a church business meeting in 1995, a church appointed a new pastor. The church operated with its new pastor for a number of years without conflict. By 2012, however, a rift had formed between the pastor and board of deacons which led to the pastor's termination, as described in a letter to him from the board:
The listed deacons called the meeting for the purpose of informing the body of some of their concerns regarding the welfare of the church that need immediate attention. A few of the things that were discussed were the falling off of member attendance, the falling off of tithes and offerings, the incorporation of the church being ignored, your lack of spiritual and financial leadership, the $187,000 [of] steel that is lying in the parking lot, and your holding a grudge against us that has not been revealed to us. Your consistently refusing to meet with the board of deacons has brought us to where we are today.
After discussing these topics and a few others, there was a motion from the floor for your termination, which was seconded. After putting this to a vote, the majority present voted for your termination. Regretfully, this is to inform you that your services to St. Union as pastor are no longer needed as of Monday, August 13, 2012. We hope you will accept the majority vote and move on pleasantly."
The pastor declined to leave his position, however, and, on October 13, 2012, held another church meeting at which he asked those present to vote whether they wanted "the pastor to stay" or "for the deacons to remain." The minutes of that meeting indicate that 37 members voted for the pastor and 10 members voted for the deacons.
For two years this situation remained at a stalemate, with the pastor continuing to serve as pastor and the deacons continuing to perform at least some of their traditional duties. The conflict between them continued, however, and eventually the deacons, who continued to administer the church's finances, at some point stopped paying the pastor's salary. Thereafter, the pastor told the congregation that he would resign if he was paid the money he was owed consisting of the salary that had been withheld by the deacons. The pastor and board began negotiations, and, on November 30, 2014, the pastor submitted his resignation. The pastor signed an "agreement" with the church in which he agreed to resign as pastor of the church in exchange for $16,600. He thereafter negotiated a check in that amount issued to him by the church.
A few weeks later, the pastor rescinded his resignation, stating that he was doing so at the request of the members of the church who had, he stated, told him that they would not accept his resignation. However, the pastor did not repay the $16,600 the church had paid him to resign. The next day, the church sent the pastor a letter reminding him of their agreement and advising him that legal action would be taken if he did not honor the agreement. On December 23, 2014, the threatened legal action was commenced when the church, acting through the five deacons who were now serving as its officers and directors, sued the pastor, alleging breach of contract and trespass and asking the trial court to issue a restraining order banning him from the church premises. On December 24, 2014, the trial court entered the requested restraining order. The court explained its judgment as follows:
The heart of the dispute and litigation in the present case is whether the pastor is or is not the pastor of the church. The choice of a pastor for a church is based wholly on Biblical principles for which a court cannot interfere without violating the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Alabama. All cases adjudicated by the Alabama Supreme Court throughout its history have respected this principle. The congregation … by majority vote must choose or terminate its pastor. This court nor the legislature through its business organization statutes nor any church member or minority group of members can alter this principle.
The dispute over whether the pastor resigned or not and if he did whether he may be rehired as pastor is for the majority of the congregation to decide …. The central, substantive dispute is whether the pastor is or is not the pastor and such is wholly spiritual and ecclesiastical in nature and the court cannot interfere (emphasis added).
The state supreme court agreed with the trial court that the central issue was the pastor's status, a question it was barred from resolving by the constitutional protection of religious liberty. It concluded: "As the trial court implicitly recognized … even if the pastor had resigned, there is still the question whether he could rescind his resignation or be rehired as pastor if that was the desire of the majority of the church's members. Ultimately, only the congregation, not this court, can answer that question."
The supreme court noted that the pastor had countersued the church for conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and conspiracy, and sought an accounting of church funds from 2005 to the present, a temporary restraining order enjoining the church and its directors from expending any church funds, and an order requiring the church to turn over to the pastor all funds held on behalf of the church. The supreme court concluded that the gist of the pastor's claims "is that the corporation and its directors have wrongfully refused him access to financial records of the church and to church funds, and he also makes vague allegations that the church and its directors have misused church funds. The church denies that the pastor has been refused access to any records, denies any misuse of church funds, and maintains that it is the proper party to control the church's finances. Unlike the selection of a pastor, these are not ecclesiastical issues that a court lacks jurisdiction to consider."
What this means for churches
Many courts have concluded that for-profit employers are under no legal obligation to rehire an employee who previously resigned his or her employment. Few courts have addressed this question in the context of church employment. This is one of the few courts to do so. The court's conclusion was that the status of ministers, unlike most lay employees, implicates constitutional considerations, and that when a pastor resigns "there is still the question whether he could rescind his resignation or be rehired as pastor if that was the desire of the majority of the church's members. Ultimately, only the congregation, not this court, can answer that question."
It is possible, though unlikely, that one or more of the following resources may address an employee's right to revoke a resignation, and so they should be consulted whenever a former employee seeks to revoke a prior resignation:
- A church's constitution, bylaws, or other governing document
- The state nonprofit corporation law under which a church is incorporated
- Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised
- A policy manual
- An employee handbook
One additional point: in order to avoid a discrimination claim under state or federal law, it is important for churches, like any employer, to treat members of a protected class under state or federal civil rights laws the same as other employees. So, for example, if a church has allowed some employees to revoke a resignation from employment, but has not offered this same accommodation to a member of a protected class, this could be the basis for an unlawful discrimination claim. St. Union Church v. Howard, 2016 WL 2848391 (Ala. 2016).