Bishop Sues Local Pastor for Refusing to Step Down

A denomination’s lawsuit against a minister cannot come from a denominational official.

Church Law and Tax 1994-03-01 Recent Developments

Church Disputes

Key point: A lawsuit by a denomination against an affiliated minister must be brought by the denomination itself and not a denominational official.

A Missouri court ruled that a lawsuit brought by a bishop against a local pastor who refused to obey the bishop’s order to step down as his church’s pastor had to be dismissed because the denomination was not a party to the lawsuit. A pastor of a local church affiliated with the Church of God in Christ (a denomination with national offices in Memphis, Tennessee) ignored an order from his jurisdictional bishop to step down as pastor of his church. The bishop sued the pastor, asking a trial court to forbid the pastor from exercising any further authority as pastor of the church. The pastor responded by asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that (1) the dispute was a private religious dispute over which a civil court lacks jurisdiction, and (2) the “real party in interest” (the national church) was not a party to the lawsuit. In support of its motion to dismiss, the pastor submitted an affidavit from the church secretary that read: “[The church] is and always has been an independent church. Although we follow the general doctrines and beliefs of the Church of God in Christ, headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, we are and never have been subject to or bound by oversight of that national church organization. Accordingly, we hold title to all the church’s property in the church’s own name and we elect a board of trustees annually during our membership meeting in January.” The pastor also pointed out that the church’s articles of incorporation specify that “it is expressly understood that this corporation is not bound by or subject to oversight by any other ecclesiastical body, but will generally follow the doctrine of the Church of God in Christ.” The bishop did not submit any evidence controverting the affidavit of the church secretary or the above-quoted provision in the church’s articles of incorporation. He merely stated that as jurisdictional bishop he had sole authority to appoint or remove pastors pursuant to the procedures set forth in the Official Manual of the Church of God in Christ. He insisted that a local church can only express their preferences regarding pastors and enter into employment contracts with them. He also pointed out that the church had operated within the Church of God in Christ for more than 20 years, and had submitted to its jurisdiction without question until shortly after the appointment of the current pastor. The bishop failed to support these contentions with testimony or other evidence. The trial court ruled in favor of the pastor for two reasons. First, the evidence demonstrated that the church was independent of any ecclesiastical body and had not submitted to the governance of the Church of God in Christ. As a result, the denomination had no authority over the church or its pastor. Second, a lawsuit may only be brought by a “real party in interest,” and in this case the real party in interest was the denomination rather than the bishop. The bishop appealed this decision, claiming that as a jurisdictional bishop of the denomination he was its representative in all church matters within his jurisdiction and accordingly could bring the lawsuit on behalf of the denomination. He further insisted that the local church had submitted to the jurisdiction and discipline of the denomination. As support, he cited a provision in the Official Manual which reads: “Each jurisdictional bishop shall be the representative of the Church of God in Christ in respect to all church matters in his ecclesiastical jurisdiction and shall have general supervision over all departments and churches in his jurisdiction.” The appeals court rejected the bishop’s position, and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The court insisted that the real party in interest was the Church of God in Christ and not the bishop. In support of this conclusion, the court pointed out that the bishop had testified that he had traveled to the denominational headquarters in Memphis to persuade the denomination to become directly involved in the case. The fact that the bishop failed in this effort demonstrated conclusively that the real party in interest was the denomination and that it had no interest in pursuing the lawsuit. This case represents a crabbed interpretation of the real party in interest doctrine. It also reflects the importance of adequate presentation of evidence to a trial court. The trial court felt compelled to reach its decision in favor of the pastor in part because of the failure by the bishop to introduce any evidence supporting his allegations. The outcome of the case may have been different had evidence been introduced to support the bishop’s claims. Moore v. Graham, 863 S.W.2d 347 (Mo. App. W.D. 1993).

See Also: Authority

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