Clergy—Removal – Part 1

An Arkansas court ruled that a church congregation lawfully removed a pastor from office.

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

* An Arkansas court ruled that a church congregation lawfully removed a pastor from office. A church's pastor and 70 members left to form a new church. At that time, a majority of the congregation voted that the departing pastor and members would be allowed to take half of the church's funds with them. An interim pastor was selected, and the church appointed a pastoral search committee to find a permanent pastor. Conflict arose almost immediately between the interim pastor and members of the congregation. Chief among the problems was the interim pastor's decision to file a lawsuit to recover the money that had been given to the departing pastor and former members of the church. Another matter of concern was the interim pastor's decision to open another church bank account without consulting the membership or seeking its approval. A church meeting was held to address these and other concerns. A majority of those present voted to dismiss the interim pastor and to write the attorneys he hired to inform them that the church had not authorized him to institute the litigation.

The interim pastor called a "special meeting" of the congregation that was conducted by a denominational officer. The officer informed the congregation that the actions it took to dismiss the interim pastor and drop the lawsuit were not legally valid because the meeting and its purpose were not announced for two weeks prior to its being held. As a result, the members voted to rescind the interim pastor's dismissal.

A few weeks later members of the church attempted to call another meeting, but the interim pastor declared it to be "out of order." As a result, 37 members met in the church parking lot on the proposed date of the meeting and unanimously voted to remove the interim pastor. The interim pastor, however, refused to vacate the pulpit, and a few days later during a Bible study class he "silenced" those members who had been present at the meeting in the parking lot. It was said that a member who has been "silenced" is stripped of his or her voice in the church and is not allowed to vote on church matters.

A few months later a meeting was called for the purpose of selecting a permanent pastor. Some 45 members were in attendance, and the interim pastor was one of two candidates on the ballot. The interim pastor refused those members who had been "silenced" the opportunity to vote. Of the remaining 20 members who were permitted to vote, 13 voted for the interim pastor.

Some of the silenced members asked a civil court to forbid the interim pastor from serving as pastor of the church on the ground that he was not the lawful pastor. The members also asked the court to order an accounting of church funds. A trial court ruled that the meeting in the parking lot was valid, and so the interim pastor had been properly dismissed. The court also ruled that any acts taken by the interim pastor after this meeting, including the silencing of the members and his calling of the meeting during which he was "elected" as permanent pastor, were null and void. The interim pastor appealed.

A state appeals court began its ruling by noting that "our courts have followed the rule that where a minister of a congregational church is dismissed by the action of the majority of the church, and thereafter usurps the pastoral duties, the majority is entitled to an injunction to restrain him and to prevent him and his adherents from occupying and using the church without the consent of the majority."

The court rejected the interim pastor's argument that the congregational meeting in the church parking lot was invalid because it had not been properly called. It observed, "The trial court found that the meeting was properly called because the place, time, and purpose of the meeting were announced two weeks in advance and that this was the only requirement the majority deemed necessary to call a meeting …. Therefore, even accepting the interim pastor's view as to proper procedure, there was testimony that the procedure was followed …. We further observe that the interim pastor was elected to temporarily fill the vacancy in the pulpit. There was testimony that in that capacity he only had so much authority as the majority saw fit to give him. As shown by their actions, it is clear that the majority did not grant him the authority to prevent the calling of meetings and thereby allow him to occupy that position indefinitely, despite the will of the majority." McCree v. Walker, 2003 WL 1289845 (Ark. App. 2003).

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