Q&A: Disciplining Church Employees

My executive pastor is attempting to add more requirements to the employee discipline agreement I signed. What can I do?

I am an employee at a church. Recently, I engaged in conduct that the church considers sinful. I was questioned by the church’s executive pastor about this conduct and ultimately signed a document agreeing to certain actions to discipline, educate, and counsel me. After I signed the document, the executive pastor attempted to add additional requirements to my discipline. What rights, if any, do I have in this situation?
For most jurisdictions, a church is considered an “at-will” employer. This means that an employee can be terminated at any time, with or without cause, and conversely, the employee can resign at any time for any or no reason. The “at-will” employment arrangement can be altered if there is a written agreement that changes the employment relationship, such as an employee contract. However, assuming the employment relationship in the question above is an “at-will” employment scenario, the employer (i.e. the church) has the right to discipline the employee for misconduct. “Misconduct” does not have to be criminal, but can be anything that the employer identifies as being detrimental to the work relationship, including conduct considered by the Church to be sinful. Many religious employers adopt written lifestyle guidelines, such as a Christian Code of Conduct, that they expect their employees to follow. Failure to abide by such written lifestyle guidelines may even serve as grounds for termination of employment. When an employer chooses to discipline an employee, it needs to document the reason for, and the nature of, the disciplinary actions to be taken, and that documentation should be retained in the individual’s personnel file.
There is also what is known as a “ministerial exception” to employment law that means that if the employee is employed as a minister of a church and is being disciplined, the courts will usually not get involved in questioning the church employer, but will “abstain” from hearing the dispute. While churches can discriminate as to employees regarding religious beliefs, they are otherwise prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, age and other traditional discriminatory reasons (although, based upon the ministerial exception, such issues are sometimes not able to be examined).
If a document was signed between the two parties, the question would be whether or not that document rises to the level of being an employment agreement that changes the “at-will” employment relationship. If the document is found to have changed the “at-will employment” relationship, then the employer would no longer be able to terminate employment at any time without cause, but would instead be limited to only being able to discharge the employee for cause. An employer may always discharge an employee for good cause, even if an employment contract provides for a definite term of employment. Good cause for discharging an employee is defined as the employee’s failure to perform the duties in the scope of employment that a person of ordinary prudence would have done under the same or similar circumstances. An employee’s act constitutes good cause for discharge if it is inconsistent with the continued existence of the employer-employee relationship. The standard for measuring an employee’s job performance is whether the employee performed the duties involved “substantially” or “reasonably well,” rather than whether the employee achieved specific results (unless the employment agreement required specific results). However, it is important to note that most courts tend to be reluctant to find that the at-will relationship has been changed.
In this particular case, the employee should take the agreement he signed to his attorney to determine if the agreement has altered the “at-will” employment relationship. If the employment relationship is no longer found to be “at-will,” then while the employee may have not be able to refuse the additional disciplinary actions now required of him, he may at least have an argument against the employer being able to terminate his employment. On the other hand, aside from the legalities, if the employee admits that he has engaged in conduct that was questionable or sinful, and the church chose to not terminate him on the spot, as it probably was allowed to do, and has instead tried to create a situation to help the employee keep his job, then the employee ought to consider accepting whatever reasonable discipline is requested and be thankful that he works for an employer that was willing to provide an alternative approach.

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