Pastor, Church & Law

Property Matters

§ 3.03

A minister can engage in property transactions on behalf of a church only if authorized to do so. Authority may be expressly granted in the church’s charter or bylaws, but more frequently a church’s board of directors or members vote to authorize the minister to represent the church in a specific transaction.3 Berymon v. Henderson, 482 N.E.2d 391 (Ill. App. 1985); Brooks v. January, 321 N.W.2d 823 (Mich. App. 1982).

If no authority over the business and property affairs of a church has been delegated to a minister, he or she may not lawfully act for the church in such matters. In one case a minister declared himself to be the absolute religious leader of a congregation and thereafter exercised complete control over all of the church’s spiritual and business activities. The minister’s conveyance of church properties was challenged by members of the congregation who questioned his authority in business matters. The court concluded that the minister’s “proclaiming … of himself as the religious superior of the congregation may suffice to establish that fact in spiritual matters of his church, but it does not affect legal superiority in secular matters.”4 Id.

The court emphasized that there must be “clear and convincing” evidence of congregational acceptance of legal superiority by a minister over church business and property matters before such authority will be recognized by the courts. In a related case, a minister who was the sole trustee of a church was not permitted to convey church property for his own benefit.5 Dawkins v. Dawkins, 328 P.2d 346 (Kan. 1958). Accord Biscegelia v. Bernadine Sisters, 560 N.E.2d 567 (Mass. App. 1990).And, when a minister attempted to lease church properties without authorization from the church board, the lease was found to have no legal effect.6 American Legion v. Southwest Title Insurance Co., 207 So.2d 393 (La. 1968); Soho Center for Arts and Education v. Church of Saint Anthony, 541 N.Y.S.2d 396 (1989); Diocese of Buffalo v. McCarthy, 458 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1983).

A church may ratify the unauthorized actions of its pastor. Ratification may be by express action of the congregation or, in some cases by church board, if such authority is conferred by the church’s governing documents. Authority of clergy to act unilaterally in property transactions may be implied if the church has knowledge of unauthorized action but does nothing to disclaim it.7 Hill v. Hill, 241 S.W.2d 865 (Tenn. 1951).

To illustrate, if a minister commits some unauthorized act and the church knows of the act but does not object within a reasonable time, the church may be left without legal recourse.

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