• Key point 6-12.1. Church membership meetings must be conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements ordinarily specified in the church’s governing documents. The most common requirements pertain to notice, quorum, and voting.
• Key point 6-12.4. Most courts refuse to intervene in church disputes concerning the validity of a membership meeting that was not conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents. However, some courts are willing to intervene in such disputes if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.
* A Michigan court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dismissed pastor’s claim that his dismissal was legally void because of noncompliance with procedural requirements. Twenty-two members at a church business meeting voted sixteen to six in favor of the pastor’s dismissal. The pastor challenged the legality of this vote on several grounds, including the following:
five disputed votes
The pastor insisted that five persons who cast votes were not active voting members. The court concluded that even if the five persons were not members, their votes would not nullify the action of the church membership since “even disregarding the five disputed votes, and assuming that all five of the disputed votes were cast against the pastor, the uncontested votes would still have supplied a valid margin of eleven to six in favor of his dismissal. Because discounting these five votes would have neither changed the result of the vote nor affected its validity, the question whether those votes should have been counted could not be decisive of the outcome at trial. Hence … any error in the trial court’s review of that issue was harmless.
thirty days’ notice
The pastor claimed that the church bylaws required thirty days’ notice before the termination of a pastor, and that the church failed to comply with this requirement. The court disagreed, “[The church bylaws] unambiguously provide that, once the church decides that the relationship is to be dissolved, it must give the pastor thirty days’ notice before terminating the relationship. There is nothing in language of the relevant provisions to suggest that the church must give thirty days’ notice to its members before a vote on termination may be taken.”
The pastor claimed that the vote on his termination was improperly conducted because the church failed to comply with a bylaw provision requiring the church’s nominating committee to act as tellers for the vote. Once again, the court disagreed, “Although the bylaws require that the nominating committee function as tellers at the annual election of church officers, the unambiguous language of these documents limits the committee’s function in this regard to the annual election. There is nothing in the bylaws providing that the nominating committee must also act as tellers for other votes conducted at church business meetings, such as the vote to dissolve the relationship between the pastor and the church.”
two weeks’ notice
The pastor claimed that the vote on his termination was invalid because it did not comply with a bylaw notice provision requiring that special meetings be held only if notice is given on the two preceding worship services. The court disagreed, “The pastor fails to note that the vote was not taken at a special meeting, but rather at a regular business meeting of the church. Under the church’s bylaws, regular church business meetings are conducted on the Saturday before the first Sunday of each month, and there are no special notice requirements for the regular meetings. The meeting in question was held on October 2, 1999, the Saturday immediately preceding the first Sunday in October 1999. Thus, it was a regular business meeting, not a special one, and no special notice was required.” White v. First United Baptist Church, 2002 WL 1575243 (Mich. App. 2002).
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