Pastor, Church & Law

Congregational Churches

§ 02.01.01

Key point 2-01.01. In congregational churches ministers often are selected by church members according to the procedures set forth in the church’s governing documents.

Churches may be classified in terms of polity or organization as either congregational or hierarchical. Understanding the difference between these two basic types of church structure is important, since some aspects of the pastor-church relationship turn on this distinction. The United States Supreme Court has defined a congregational church as “a religious congregation which, by the nature of its organization, is strictly independent of other ecclesiastical associations, and so far as church government is concerned, owes no fealty or obligation to any higher authority.”1 Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 722 (1871).

The Supreme Court has defined a hierarchical church as “a subordinate member of some general church organization in which there are superior ecclesiastical tribunals with a general and ultimate power of control … over the whole membership of that general organization.”2 Id. at 722-23.Many churches combine elements of both forms of polity. For example, one court noted that “a church may be hierarchical in terms of internal administration and discipline, and yet congregational as far as control and use of its property is concerned.”3 Antioch Temple v. Parekh, 422 N.E.2d 1337, 1342 (Mass. 1981).

In congregational churches the minister ordinarily is selected by the congregation itself according to the procedures set forth in the church’s constitution, bylaws, or other governing document. If none of these documents addresses the subject, then the established practice of the church controls. Congregational churches often select ministers either by majority vote of the church’s membership or by the decision of the church’s governing board.4 See, e.g., Holiman v. Dovers, 366 S.W.2d 197 (Ark. 1963) (majority of members of Baptist church have right to select pastor); De Jean v. Board of Deacons, 139 A.2d 205 (Dela. 1958) (common practice in Baptist churches to select ministers by majority vote of congregation); Franklin v. Hahn, 275 S.W.2d 776 (Ky. 1955) (ministers in Christian Church selected by majority vote of congregation); Sherburne Village Baptist Society v. Ryder, 86 N.Y.S.2d 853 (1949) (“Under the usages and custom of the Baptist Church, the authority to employ or dismiss a minister lies not in the corporation, the trustees, or the deacons, but in the congregation itself.”); Atkins v. Walker, 200 S.E.2d 641, 650 (N.C. 1973) (“[T]he congregation … had the right, by a majority vote, in a duly called and conducted meeting of the congregation … to call to its pastorate the man of its choice.”); McCarther v. Pleasant Bethany Baptist Church, 195 S.W.2d 819 (Tex. 1946) (minister retained by action of board of deacons); Ex parte McClain, 762 S.W.2d 238 (Tex. App. 1988); First Baptist Church of Hope Hull v. Owens, 474 So.2d 638 (Ala. 1985).Although either method is legally acceptable, most congregational or independent churches select their ministers by majority vote of the congregation’s membership.

Case study. A New York court ruled that a denominational agency could not interfere with a church’s selection of a pastor or the management of its affairs since the denomination was congregational rather than hierarchical in nature. The court concluded that it could not affirm the pastor’s status, since she had not been selected by a board of trustees who had been chosen through annual elections called for by the church’s certificate of incorporation. However, since the court found the church to be congregational in polity, it was not subject to the intervention of the denomination in the pastoral selection process. As a result, the court resolved the impasse by appointing a receiver to determine the voting members of the church and to oversee an election of trustees pursuant to the certificate of incorporation. 5 St. Matthew Church of Christ v. Creech, 768 N.Y.S.2d 111 (Sup. Ct. 2003).

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