Church Meetings

An Arkansas court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the former members of a church’s board of deacons challenging their removal from office and dismissal from membership.

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.

Church Business Meetings

* An Arkansas court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the former members of a church's board of deacons challenging their removal from office and dismissal from membership on the ground that the courts cannot interfere with majority votes of the members of congregational churches. A church's board of deacons dismissed the senior pastor without a vote of the church membership. In response, the church members convened two meetings. In the first, they voted to remove the deacons from office. In the second, they voted to dismiss the deacons as members of the church. The church did not notify the deacons or any other church member by letter regarding the two meetings. Instead, the deacons and the church members were informed of the meeting by a phone call or a personal visit. The deacons were absent from the first meeting, but they attended the second meeting. The dismissed deacons filed a lawsuit in which they asked a court to invalidate the actions taken by the church in the two meetings on the ground that written notice was not given as required by church procedure. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that a majority of the congregation is entitled to the management and control of the church's affairs. The court did not find that the church had any formal set of rules or regulations concerning matters of governance. The dismissed deacons appealed.

A state appeals court ruled that the trial court properly dismissed the deacons' lawsuit. It concluded,

Arkansas law reflects that the rights of different factions forming a religious body under the congregational form of church government are to be determined by the membership where a majority controls. This statement, of course, assumes that the vote has been cast according to established rules. It also presupposes that from a doctrinal standpoint there has not been such an abrupt departure from congregational principles as to discredit the prevailing group as a matter of law …. [A]t a minimum, before a member can be expelled from a religious society, notice must be given him to answer the charge made against him and an opportunity offered to make his defense. Without such notice and an opportunity to be heard, the order of expulsion is void. [The pastor and church secretary] testified that the deacons were given an opportunity to speak at the [second] meeting. In addition [they] were given notice of both meetings. Moreover, all of the deacons were present at the [second] meeting.

Application. This case illustrates the view of many courts that issues of governance and administration in a "congregational" church are determined by majority vote of the membership if there is no controlling provision in the church's governing documents. Jones v. Bethlehem Baptist Church, 57 S.W.3d 217 (Ark. App. 2001).

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