Key point 6-06.01. Churches select their officers and directors in various ways. For example, it is common for members of a church board to be elected by the church’s membership, while officers are elected by the board. The civil courts generally refrain from resolving disputes involving the selection of church officers and directors on the ground that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from becoming involved in ecclesiastical disputes.
It is customary for directors and trustees to be elected by the church membership and for officers to be elected by the board of directors or trustees. However, this is not always the case. For example, it is common for directors to nominate officers who are then elected by the voting membership.
Unless stated otherwise in either the bylaws or state law, officers, directors, and trustees are elected by a majority vote of the congregation’s membership. To illustrate, one court ruled that the congregation, and not the board of deacons, had the exclusive authority to elect a treasurer when the church constitution or bylaws did not grant this authority to the board of deacons.164 Gervin v. Reddick, 268 S.E.2d 657 (Ga. 1980).
Many churches have adopted a “staggered system” of electing directors whereby a minority (often a third) of the directors are elected at each annual meeting. This normally is accomplished by classifying directors in the bylaws according to tenure: the first class holding office for one year, the second class for two years, and the third class for three years. Thereafter successors for each class of directors are elected for three-year terms. This system helps to ensure that a majority of the board at all times will be experienced. Unless forbidden by charter, bylaw, or statute, directors or officers may succeed themselves in office.
Vacancies occurring in any office or on the board of directors or board of trustees are filled according to applicable provisions in state law or in the church’s charter or bylaws. Church bylaws often permit vacancies in the board of directors to be filled by the board itself except for vacancies created by an increase in the number of directors. Vacancies typically are filled only for the unexpired term of the predecessor in office.
If the filling of vacancies is not provided for by state law or a church’s charter or bylaws, there is no alternative but to await the next annual meeting of the congregation or to call a special meeting of the congregation expressly for the purpose of filling the vacancy for the unexpired term.
A minister it not entitled to serve as president of a church or even as a director or trustee unless specifically authorized in the church’s charter or bylaws.165 Allen v. North Des Moines Methodist Episcopal Church, 102 N.W. 808 (Iowa 1905).
Incorporated and unincorporated churches must follow the procedures in their charter or bylaws and in applicable state laws regarding the election or appointment of church officers, directors, and trustees. The courts have differed, however, as to the legal remedies available in the event that such internal procedures are not followed.
the general rule of judicial nonintervention
Some courts have refused to intervene in internal church disputes over the selection of a minister even if the process allegedly violated a church’s charter or bylaws. These courts have relied primarily on the following language from a 1976 decision by the United States Supreme Court:
The conclusion of the Illinois Supreme Court that the decisions of the [Diocese] were “arbitrary” was grounded upon an inquiry that persuaded the Illinois Supreme Court that the [Diocese] had not followed its own laws and procedures in arriving at those decisions. We have concluded that whether or not there is room for “marginal civil court review” under the narrow rubrics of “fraud” or “collusion” when church tribunals act in bad faith for secular purposes, no “arbitrariness” exception—in the sense of an inquiry whether the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchical church complied with church laws and regulations—is consistent with the constitutional mandate that civil courts are bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law. For civil courts to analyze whether the ecclesiastical actions of a church judicatory are in that sense “arbitrary” must inherently entail inquiry into the procedures that canon or ecclesiastical law supposedly require the church adjudicatory to follow, or else into the substantive criteria by which they are supposedly to decide the ecclesiastical question. But this is exactly the inquiry that the First Amendment prohibits. …166 Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 712-13 (1976) (emphasis added).
This rule of judicial non-intervention in disputes concerning internal church government has been applied by some courts, since 1976, to disputes involving the selection of church officers and directors.
- Maryland’s highest court ruled that an arbitration award addressing the composition of a church’s board of trustees was not reviewable by the civil courts since any review would require an interpretation of religious doctrine. The court concluded that “in many instances, issues of church polity will be inextricably intertwined with secular issues in contested church elections,” and that the civil courts may not “wander into the theological thicket in order to render a decision.”167 American Union of Baptists v. Trustees of the Particular Primitive Baptist Church, 644 A.2d 1063 (Md. 1994).]
- A New Jersey court ruled that a trial court acted improperly in overseeing a church business meeting and the election of a pastor and church officers and trustees. Several ousted church leaders appealed the court’s ruling. The ousted leaders claimed that the church elections were void because they were contrary to the church’s bylaws that vested ecclesiastical authority to determine the eligibility of nominees for church office exclusively in internal church governing bodies. The court concluded that “in the absence of clear and unambiguous direction in church law, an intrachurch dispute over eligibility for nomination to church office, implicating as it does the more fundamental question of church governance and congregational structure, does not present a proper issue for judicial consideration.”168 Solid Rock Baptist Church v. Carlton, 789 A.2d 149 (N.J. Super. 2002).
- A Pennsylvania court declined to rule on which of two warring factions of church trustees rightfully held office.169 Atterberry v. Smith, 522 A.2d 683 (Pa. App. 1987).A minister in a local church had ousted several trustees from office, replacing them with new trustees more loyal to himself. The ousted trustees alleged that the minister lacked the authority to replace them, and that they accordingly were still the lawful church board. The court, noting that civil courts must “defer” to churches and their own ecclesiastical organizations regarding any question of “discipline, faith, ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law,” held that the question of a minister’s authority to replace church trustees involves ecclesiastical law and therefore must be resolved by the church itself. It ordered the trial court to identify the highest body within the church empowered to decide the issue.
- A Texas court ruled that it could not resolve an internal church dispute involving the selection of church trustees since the critical provisions in the church’s governing documents could not be applied without the court delving into church doctrine and governance.170 Cherry Valley Church of Christ v. Foster, 2002 WL 10545 (Tex. App. 2002).
- marginal civil court review if doctrine not implicated
Some courts have been willing to intervene in internal church controversies regarding the selection of officers and directors.
- A Louisiana court ruled that provisions in a church charter listing the requirements of church membership did not apply to members of the church board. A pastor attempted to disqualify three deacons from voting on an important issue because they no longer qualified as church members under a provision in the church charter requiring members to tithe. A state appeals court rejected the pastor’s argument that the three deacons had forfeited their right to vote by virtue of the fact that they failed to tithe. The court pointed out that the tithing requirement applied only to church members—and not to members of the board of deacons. It observed that the church charter “sets forth requirements for corporate membership exclusively; thus, individual directors need not comply with [the charter’s] assessment requirements to maintain their status as voting members of the deacon board.” Instead, the court concluded that the church’s board members were governed by another provision in the church’s charter stipulating that “the persons elected deacons of the church shall automatically become members of the board of directors.”171 Chimney Ville Missionary Baptist Church v. Johnson, 665 So.2d 730 (La. App. 1995). See also Wilkerson v. Battiste, 393 So.2d 195 (La. 1980); Trinity Pentecostal Church v. Terry, 660 S.W.2d 449 (Mo. App. 1983); In re Uranian 1st Gnostic Lyceum Temple, 547 N.Y.S.2d 63 (N.Y. App. 1989).
- A Missouri court ruled that it could determine whether two board members of a religious organization were qualified to serve, since it could do so without considering religious doctrine.172 Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery v. Levy, 923 S.W.2d 439 (Mo. App. 1996).