Which faction in a local church is entitled to the church's property following an attempted disaffiliation from a hierarchical denomination?
That was the issue before a Texas appeals court in an important ruling. In 1959, a Texas congregation affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church (UPC). As a condition of affiliation, the church was required to adopt the UPC denominational articles of faith and constitution. The church also adopted recommended bylaws for local churches, and in 1970 incorporated under state nonprofit corporation law.
In 1982, the church elected a new minister. Seven years later, following allegations of immoral behavior, the minister resigned the pulpit. Almost immediately, he had second thoughts about resigning. Encouraged by his supporters, he launched a campaign to regain his former position. Among other things, he claimed that he never really had resigned since his resignation had never been formally "accepted" by the church.
The church's bylaws specified various procedures for the selection of a new pastor following a resignation. Much of the authority previously vested in the local pastor transfers to the UPC district superintendent for the district in which the church is located.
The bylaws specified that the district superintendent must convene and preside over any church meeting at which a pastor is to be selected or any other business is to be transacted. The district superintendent and the church board must recommend a candidate for pastor, who must receive a majority vote of the local members. Because of the pending allegations of immoral conduct against the former minister, neither the district superintendent nor the church board would recommend that he resume his duties as pastor of the church.
Frustrated by the district superintendent's refusal to call a meeting to reinstate him, and believing that a majority of the church members would back him, the former pastor began to hold services and meetings with the members in violation of the constitution of the UPC which requires any resigning pastor to sever all connections with a former church. Unable to regain his former position under the church's existing bylaws, the former pastor announced his intention to hold a church business meeting at which the congregation would consider disaffiliating from the UPC denomination.
As authority for this action, the former pastor relied on a section in the Texas nonprofit corporation law permitting 10% of the members of a corporation to call a special meeting. At the meeting, the members voted to remove the current board, install a new board, and reinstate the former pastor. The district superintendent attended the meeting, and pronounced it invalid on the ground that it violated UPC and local church bylaws.
Specifically, the superintendent pointed out that these documents require that the superintendent preside over any church business meeting if a church is without a pastor, and further require that a minister must have the recommendation of the superintendent to be eligible for election as pastor. The UPC appealed to a civil court for assistance. A trial court agreed that all of the actions taken by the members during their meeting were invalid. It prohibited the former pastor from using the church's property or its funds, and from interfering with church services or meetings. The former pastor appealed.
A state appeals court agreed with the trial court's decision, and ruled in favor of the UPC. It began its opinion by noting that the church was a hierarchical church since it had (1) affiliated with the UPC; (2) adopted the UPC articles of faith and bylaws; (3) submitted to the authority of the UPC in certain matters of local government (including the selection of a new minister when a former minister resigns); and (4) relied on the authority of the UPC in ordaining and disciplining clergy.
The court then observed: "[Texas] courts have consistently followed the deference rule in deciding hierarchical church property disputes since the Texas Supreme Court adopted the rule …. The deference rule imputes to members 'implied consent' to the governing bylaws of their church. Persons who unite themselves to a hierarchical church organization do so with 'implied consent' that church bylaws will govern …." There was no doubt, the court concluded, that the membership meeting at which the board was deposed and the former pastor reinstated violated UPC bylaws and accordingly such action were void under the "deference rule." The court also rejected the former pastor's claim that church members have a legal right, under state nonprofit corporation law, to remove directors.
It observed: "We do not deny that [the church] has rights under the Texas Nonprofit Corporation Act, but we affirm the trial court's determination that the church affiliated with a hierarchical church organization. In a conflict between the general procedures outlined in the Texas Nonprofit Corporation Act and the specific procedures contained in the church bylaws, we must defer to the church bylaws. The trial court properly found that the members could not invoke the Texas Nonprofit Corporation Act to remove the board …."
The court concluded that the trial court had acted properly in awarding possession of the church's property to the current board: "Where a congregation of a hierarchical church has split, those members who renounce their allegiance to the church lose any rights in the property involved and remain loyal to the church. It is a simple question of identity."
What this means for churches
Consider the following:
- The court gave a fairly liberal definition of the term hierarchical. This is important, given the court's reliance on the "deference rule."
- The case illustrates that Texas follows the "deference rule" in resolving church property disputes. The deference rule "imputes to members 'implied consent' to the governing bylaws of their church. Persons who unite themselves to a hierarchical church organization do so with 'implied consent' that church bylaws will govern." This approach tends to favor denominations in disputes over control of a dissident local church's property.
- The following observation in the court's decision clearly favors denominations in disputes over control of local church property: "Where a congregation of a hierarchical church has split, those members who renounce their allegiance to the church lose any rights in the property involved and remain loyal to the church. It is a simple question of identity."
- The ruling illustrates that a church's bylaws generally take priority over provisions in a state's nonprofit corporation law.
- The case illustrates that a minister's resignation may be valid even if not "accepted" formally by the church. The court rejected the former pastor's claim that his "resignation" was ineffective (since it had never been accepted by the church). It pointed out that the pastor had received the 30 days' compensation that is paid to ministers who resign, and, that he had at no time (following his resignation) served as the church's duly authorized minister. Green v. Westgate Apostolic Church, 808 S.W.2d 547 (Tex. App. 1991).