• Ambiguous or incomplete church bylaws often spawn legal disputes. Such was the case in a recent Louisiana decision. In 1987, the trustees of a Baptist church removed their pastor from office, and then obtained a court order prohibiting him from continuing as pastor of the church and from entering upon church property. Within days, a group calling itself the “board of directors and general membership” of the church asked the court to reverse its previous order on the ground that the “trustees” who obtained the order had been removed from office by the church membership, and that the pastor had been reinstated. The “new” trustees also sought $400,000 in damages against the previous trustees because of their “acts of bad faith in attempting to use power not given to them by the bylaws or general membership.” The trial judge observed that “the articles of incorporation and the bylaws are seriously deficient in not only meeting the requirements of law but also deficient in providing and directing the directors, or the governing body, of the church as to how they should internally handle the affairs of the church.” The trial court issued an order declaring that all prior meetings of the trustees and general membership of the church were null and void and of no legal effect. In addition, it ordered a general membership meeting to be conducted on a specified date (following written notice to all members), at which time a board of directors of nine members would be elected from the membership of the church. The court further decreed that the meeting would be presided over by a panel of three persons, one of whom would be designated by the court, and that only those persons who were at least 18 years of age, and who had been members of the church for the preceding six months, were eligible to vote. The court disallowed “proxy” voting, and empowered the newly elected board of directors to adopt a set of bylaws to “govern the internal affairs of the church,” including the calling or dismissing of a pastor. Finally, the trial judge ruled that the previous board’s efforts to remove the pastor were invalid since the church bylaws did not confer such authority upon the board. The previous trustees appealed the trial judge’s order to a state appeals court on the ground that the judge had exceeded his authority, and that they had not been lawfully removed from office. The state appeals court ruled that the members of a nonprofit corporation may remove directors from office at a meeting called for this purpose, at any time. However, since the church had not fulfilled the legal notice requirements imposed by state law for calling a special business meeting, the church’s attempted removal of the previous trustees was “null and void.” The court further concluded that the previous trustees lacked the authority to remove the pastor from office, since the church bylaws did not specifically confer this authority upon them. The court upheld the trial judge’s order calling for a supervised church meeting at which a new board would be elected. It rejected the previous trustees’ contention that there was no legal precedent for a civil court ordering a church meeting and election. However, it did reverse the trial judge’s order prohibiting proxy voting, since such a ruling was contrary to state nonprofit corporation law. This case illustrates the following important principles: (1) internal church problems often are caused by inadequate or incomplete church bylaws; (2) complying with notice requirements in calling a church business meeting is essential; (3) a civil court may intervene in a church’s internal affairs in order to resolve conflicts prompted by inadequate bylaws; and (4) a church board may not remove a pastor unless such authority is specifically vested in them by either the church charter or bylaws. First Union Baptist Church v. Banks, 533 So.2d 1305 (La. App. 1988).
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