• Key point 2-04.2. Some courts are willing to resolve disputes over the termination of clergy if they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine. Termination
• Key point 6-06.2. Officers and directors must be legally authorized to act on behalf of their church. Legal authority can be express, implied, inherent, or apparent. In addition, a church can ratify the unauthorized actions of its officers or directors, but this is not required. Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees
• Key point 6-09.2. Church members have such legal authority as is vested in them by their church's governing documents, and in some cases by state nonprofit corporation law. Church Members
An Indiana court ruled that a majority of a "congregational" church's members, rather than the church's board of trustees, had the legal authority to determine whether or not to retain their pastor. A church's board of trustees sent a "notice of termination" to the pastor. The trustees took this action without providing notice to the church congregation or seeking its approval. The pastor refused to relinquish his position, and the congregation convened a special business meeting at which it ousted the trustees and replaced them with a new board. The original trustees filed a lawsuit in the name of the church asking a court to recognize their removal of the pastor. The court refused, noting that the trustees had no authority to bring the lawsuit in the name of the church and that they failed to present any evidence that the pastor was a danger to the church's property or congregation. The trustees appealed, claiming that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes such as this one. A state appeals court acknowledged that the "civil courts are precluded from resolving disputes involving church affairs if resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry into religious law and polity." However, "the courts do not inhibit free exercise of religion merely by opening their doors to disputes involving property, as there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes, which can be applied without establishing churches to which property is awarded. Therefore, the first amendment commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine and practice."
The court noted that for churches of "congregational" polity, "the religious organization is represented by a majority of its members," and therefore "when presented with a dispute within a church of congregational polity, our courts will uphold the majority's decision, whether that is to purchase property or even remove the minister, unless the church has established its own decision-making body with the power to override the will of the majority." Without such a presumption, the court concluded, there would be chaos because members would have no avenue to resolve the dispute.
The court ruled that the dispute in this case was not a controversy over church doctrine or practice involving the interpretation of church doctrines. Rather, "this is simply a case where the trustees in a congregational church found themselves in the minority." As a result, the dispute had to be resolved according to the will of the majority of church members. The court noted that the members had voted not to recognize the authority of the trustees to fire the minister. The trustees insisted that the presumption of majority rule was rebutted by two provisions in the minister's original contract. One provision specified that "church delegated leaders" could terminate the contract without cause, and the other said that the "church delegated leaders" were the "only overseers of the church" and were "responsible for all of the affairs of the church … and "all ministers serve the congregation under the total oversight of and in partnership with the church delegated leaders to accomplish such purposes and objectives as are set forth in the scriptures."
The court rejected the trustee's claim that these provisions in the pastor's employment contract defeated the presumption of majority rule. It noted that only four of the "church designated leaders" had signed the contract; that the church leaders were referred to as "delegated"; and, that "despite the language in the contract, such leaders were still answerable to the majority will from which they obtained their authority" to enter into the employment contract.
Application. This case illustrates two important points. First, a majority of the members of a "congregational" church generally will decide how internal church disputes are resolved, unless the church's organizational documents or other controlling authority vests this authority in another person or group. Second, this case demonstrates the potential relevance of employment contracts in resolving questions over the status of a pastor or other church employee. In this case, the trustees insisted that they had the sole authority to determine whether or not the minister should be retained because of language in the minister's employment contract that seemed to give them extensive authority. While the court rejected the trustee's argument, the fact remains that it was a close question that could have been decided either way. The lesson is clear. If a congregational church's governing documents give the church membership the authority to select and remove a pastor, then the language in a pastor's contract of employment should not suggest that a church board has this authority. Cole v. Holt, 725 N.E.2d 145 (Ind. App. 2000).
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