Church Business Meetings

The South Carolina Supreme court ruled that church trustees lacked the authority to remove their pastor.

Church Law and Tax2003-05-01

Church Business Meetings

Key point 2-04.2. Some courts are willing to resolve disputes over the termination of clergy if they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine.

* The South Carolina Supreme court ruled that church trustees lacked the authority to remove their pastor, and that a congregation’s removal of its trustees and election of new ones was invalid because it occurred at a meeting that failed to comply with the “notice” requirements set forth in the church’s bylaws. A church’s trustees voted to dismiss the church’s pastor. In response, the congregation voted to oust the trustees, elected new trustees, and overrode the dismissal of the pastor. The original trustees retaliated by freezing the church’s assets and locking its doors. A group of church members asked a court to determine the status of the pastor and the newly elected trustees. A trial court ruled that the church was congregational in polity and, as such, the congregation held the ultimate authority over all church matters. As a result, the court concluded that the removal of the original trustees was legitimate and the pastor’s dismissal was a nullity. On appeal, the state supreme court concluded that the church was congregational in polity, and that “in a congregational church, the congregation is the highest authority.” The court noted that the church’s bylaws “clearly reserve to the congregation the right to dismiss the preacher.” As a result, the original trustees had no authority to dismiss the pastor and therefore the dismissal “was a nullity.” However, the court concluded that the congregation’s election of new trustees was invalid because the members had not received “notice” of the meeting on the two preceding Sundays as required by the church bylaws. The court concluded, “Under the bylaws, they were entitled to notice and it is undisputed they did not receive it. Although the congregation has authority to elect its trustees under the congregational form of church governance … this authority was not properly exercised according to the church bylaws.” Williams v. Wilson, 563 S.E.2d 320 (S.C. 2002).

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