A New York court ruled that a denominational agency could not interfere with a church’s selection of a pastor or the management of its affairs.

Church Law and Tax2004-07-01


Key point 2-01.1. In congregational churches it is common for ministers to be selected by church members according to the procedures set forth in the church’s governing instrument.

Key point 2-01.3. Churches should comply with their governing instrument in the selection of a minister. If an unincorporated church has no governing instrument, or its governing instrument does not address elections, then the established practice of the church should be followed. Incorporated churches having no provision in their governing instrument addressing elections may be subject to the provisions of state nonprofit corporation law.
Initiating the Pastor-Church Relationship

* A New York court ruled that a denominational agency could not interfere with a church’s selection of a pastor or the management of its affairs since the denomination was congregational rather than hierarchical in nature. In 1967 a pastor and her family founded a church. At first, services and prayer meetings were conducted in the pastor’s home. Eventually, a storefront house of worship was established. The church was incorporated pursuant to the state Religious Corporation Law. The certificate of incorporation lists six church members as trustees, to be elected annually. Although the certificate of incorporation mandates annual elections, the church remained a family-operated organization and was managed accordingly. Most of the members and trustees were relatives or friends of the pastor. Elections were not conducted; rather, the church positions, including trustee positions, were filled by the pastor. In addition, there were no corporate bylaws. The daily business transactions were handled by a trustee and an acting trustee; all of the financial transactions were handled by the pastor. The pastor resigned from her position after 32 years due to illness, and appointed her daughter (Julia) as the new pastor.

The church had been affiliated with a denomination for nearly 30 years at the time that Julia became pastor. An officer of a regional agency of the denomination (the “regional church”) received letters from several church members who claimed that Julia was not the church’s lawful pastor since she had been appointed by her mother rather than elected by the congregation as required by the certificate of incorporation. An officer (bishop) of the regional church convened a meeting of the church board of trustees. At this meeting, a decision was made to relieve Julia of all pastoral duties based on the fact that she had assumed the pastoral position by appointment rather than election. The bishop informed Julia that she was no longer allowed to continue her position as pastor, and he further advised the trustees that they would be taking instructions from him. He determined that a church election was necessary to determine who was to hold the pastoral position. The church’s checking and savings accounts were frozen at this time.

Julia refused to accept the decisions of the board of trustees and bishop, and she asked a court to order the bishop and regional church to refrain from any further interference with the church’s operations. She also asked the court to reinstate her as pastor. The court listed the following issues for consideration: (1) whether under New York State Religious Corporations Law a religious corporation may have its pastor designated by appointment, rather than through election by its trustees or its congregation; and (2) whether the church was subject to the authority of the regional church.

appointment of a pastor

The first issue was whether the former pastor had the legal authority to appoint her successor. The court noted that the Constitution allows the civil courts to resolve internal church disputes concerning control or governance issues so long as they can do so on the basis of “neutral principles of law” involving no inquiry into doctrine or polity. The court noted that the Religious Corporation Law “did not place any stipulations upon the proper method for choosing a pastor or other clergyman” and “is silent as to the method or procedure to be followed for the appointment of a pastor.” In other words, individual churches “must themselves decide which procedures they will follow to choose their pastor or minister.” Further, the court noted that the church “had no written constitution, bylaws, or specified procedure to appoint a pastor. Since the founding of the church [Julia’s mother] was the undisputed pastor and appointed all of its officers, many of whom were her relatives.”

However, the court pointed out that the church’s certificate of incorporation requires the church to have annual elections of trustees and specifies the terms of each trustee to be one year. It concluded, “It is evident that the church does not have any properly elected trustees; since the founding of the church, no elections for corporate trustees were held …. Trusteeship continued from year to year by appointment. It is clear that the church did not follow the election requirements specified by its certificate of incorporation, and there is no evidence that members of the congregation were ever consulted about any of these appointments. Consequently, this court has no basis for affirming Julia’s position as pastor, since the church had no legally elected corporate officers.”

The court also noted that the church’s failure to properly elect trustees pursuant to its certificate of incorporation and the Religious Corporation Law had “property implications,” which it described as follows:

Since this dispute arose, the bishop and regional church allegedly trespassed upon and detained the church’s real property, interfered with church bank accounts, and improperly involved themselves with daily church activities. The Religious Corporation Law states that the duly elected trustees of the corporation have “custody and control” of all of the property of the corporation. However, in this case, the church’s failure to properly elect corporate officers to oversee the administration of its property and corporate affairs leaves a question as to who has custody and control of the corporate property.

authority of the regional church

The court noted that “whether the affairs of an incorporated church are controlled by the church itself or by a national organization depends on how the religious corporation is organized.” New York “recognizes two classes of organization which determine religious corporations’ control over their affairs: congregational and hierarchical. The court defined an hierarchical church as one which “is organized in conjunction with other churches of the same religion and which is directed by a common ruling convocation or ecclesiastic head.” A congregational church is an independent, self-governing organization controlled by a majority of its members or by other such local organism as it may have instituted for the purpose of ecclesiastical government.”

The regional church argued that since the local church lacked any corporate officers or bylaws by which a court could determine the procedure to elect a pastor, the church was subject to the hierarchical control of the regional church. In support of its claim, the regional church noted that the church participated in some denominational events; voted at denominational meetings; shared financial records with the regional church; and paid “dues” to the regional church. In addition, the national church ordained ministers, including Julia. In response, Julia argued that the church was congregational since the banking and administration of the church property was handled by the local church; the church never received grants or borrowed money from the regional church; and, the church never agreed in writing to be subject to the authority of the regional church. Under these circumstances, the court concluded that the church was congregational and not hierarchical, and as such the regional church could not interfere with the church’s management or elections.

The court appointed a receiver to determine the church’s membership according to the attendance roll book, customs, and traditions of the church, and to oversee an election for trustees by the voting members of the church.

Application. The court concluded that it could not affirm Julia’s status as pastor, since she had not been selected by a board of trustees who had been chosen through annual elections called for by the church’s certificate of incorporation. However, since the court found the church to be “congregational” in organization, it was not subject to the intervention of the regional church in the pastoral selection process. As a result, the court resolved the impasse by appointing a receiver to determine the voting members of the church and to oversee an election of trustees pursuant to the certificate of incorporation. This case illustrates an important point—church leaders should be careful to comply with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s incorporation documents, since deviations may be legally invalid. St. Matthew Church of Christ v. Creech, 768 N.Y.S.2d 111 (Sup. Ct. 2003).

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