Can a minister be voted out of office at a congregational meeting if the notice of the meeting did not indicate that there would be a vote on the minister's continued employment? That was the difficult question before a Louisiana state appeals court in a recent decision.
A Baptist church convened a special meeting of the congregation. Notice of the meeting consisted of announcements from the pulpit on the three consecutive Sundays prior to the meeting. These announcements did not indicate that a vote would be taken on the minister's continued employment. At the meeting, a motion was made from the floor to terminate the minister's services. The minister, acting as chairman of the meeting, ruled the motion out of order since there had been no prior notice that such a vote would be taken. A deacon then proceeded to conduct a vote over the minister's objection, and the members present voted to terminate the minister's services.
The ousted minister attempted to return to the pulpit on the following Sunday, but was prevented from doing so. The church later obtained a court order prohibiting the minister from attempting to occupy his former position.
The minister appealed this decision to a state appeals court, arguing that the church had improperly fired him since it had not given proper notice of the business to be transacted at the congregational meeting. The appeals court agreed. It began its opinion by observing that neither the church's charter nor bylaws specified the type of notice needed for special meetings.
Since the charter and bylaws were silent concerning the proper form and manner of notice, the state nonprofit corporation law under which the church was incorporated had to be consulted. A provision in the nonprofit corporation law specified that "unless otherwise provided in the [charter] or bylaws … the authorized person calling a members' meeting shall cause written notice of the time, place and purpose of the meeting to be given to all members entitled to vote at such meeting, at least ten days and not more than sixty days prior to the day fixed for the meeting."
Notice of the church's special congregational meeting was defective since it was not in writing (it had been announced from the pulpit), and it failed to specify the purposes of the meeting. "The notice of the meeting was clearly deficient," concluded the court, "and the meeting was therefore invalid."
This case is significant for two reasons:
First, it emphasizes the significance of giving proper notice of church business meetings. Procedural defects, such as defective notice, can render a meeting invalid. It is essential that clergy and church boards be familiar with the wording of their own church charters and bylaws regarding the matter of notice.
Second, the case illustrates the principle (which is followed in many states) that an incorporated church may be governed by state nonprofit corporation law in the event that it fails to address certain matters of administration and operation in its charter or bylaws. Of course, churches in such states are free to adopt provisions contrary to the nonprofit corporation law in their own charter or bylaws, and such provisions will be controlling. But in the event that they fail (for whatever reason) to address certain issues of church administration in their organizational documents, state law may step in to "fill the void." Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church v. Henderson, 522 So.2d 1339 (La. App. 1988).