Immanuel Baptist Church Split Highlights Need for Sound Governing Documents

Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock is grappling with a host of complex issues, including how to govern itself in the midst of a split.

A growing conflict within Immanuel Baptist Church, one of Arkansas’s largest and best-known churches, spotlights what happens when a church doesn’t have strong governing documents in place.

The absence of a corporate charter, constitution, or bylaws has complicated the controversy at the Little Rock-based church.

Immanuel Baptist was founded in 1892 and is a part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). 

Without these documents, the church faces an uphill battle regarding the status of Lead Pastor Steven W. Smith.

Does your church lack a charter, or bylaws? We can help – church incorporation and bylaw creation are covered extensively in Richard Hammar’s Church Governance – What Leaders Must Know to Conduct Legally Sound Church Business.

Rooted in child abuse allegations

Smith faces criticism for how he handled a pair of child abuse allegations. A 2015 case involved a former staff member and came to light a year after Smith took the pulpit in 2017. The other, from 2020, involved a former music ministry volunteer.

A seemingly even-split congregation, coupled with its high-profile status, has led to ongoing coverage by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper. Its membership ranks over the years have included former President Bill Clinton. 

About 200 people have recently left the church, which averages 925 in weekly attendance, the paper recently reported.

In January, expenses exceeded receipts by more than $100,000.

The value of governing documents

Governing documents typically include both a corporate charter and a constitution or bylaws.

A corporate charter, born out of an incorporation process with the state’s secretary of state, deals mostly with a church’s physical location, founding members, and doctrinal tenets. 

A constitution or bylaws lay out the rules governing a church’s internal affairs. Those rules guide, among other things: 

  • Membership qualifications
  • Voting rights and privileges
  • Meetings, including notices, timing, and quorum requirements
  • Hiring or terminating staff members, including pastors
  • Formation of committees, such as personnel and finance
  • Selection of individuals and scope of authority for the church’s governing board

Some denominations use a hierarchical structure, meaning bylaws are set by the national organization and followed by its local churches. 

Other denominations and associations of churches, including the SBC, leave governing structures up to their local churches.

When a nonprofit or church lacks formal rules, or remains silent on specific ones, a state’s Model Nonprofit Corporation Act often fills in gaps. It can also be used by courts to determine whether decisions made by an entity were proper. 

However, First Amendment considerations prevent such gap-filling when issues related to doctrine or theology arise. This includes who a church calls to serve as its pastor.

Immanuel Baptist’s challenge

Without governing documents, and with a congregation that is evenly split, what happens next at Immanuel Baptist is uncertain. 

The church’s website describes Immanuel Baptist’s structure as a “congregational polity.” 

“In a congregational structure, the larger decisions are made by the congregation,” it continues. “Larger issues would include the approval of the annual budget, the approval of the quarterly financial statement, the calling of the pastor, and the purchase of property.” 

However, specific rules regarding the processes for formally making those decisions are not stated. This ambiguity has led to turmoil.

Some of the church’s 61 deacons have called for Smith’s resignation. A “no-confidence” vote—first tabled in early February, prompting eight deacons to resign—eventually took place on February 19 and slightly favored Smith. 

Meanwhile, some Immanuel members have filed complaints with the SBC’s Credentials Committee.

The committee is responsible for determining whether churches are in “friendly cooperation” with SBC causes and doctrine, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A possible solution

Since the matter involves Smith’s role as a pastor, the Arkansas Nonprofit Corporation Act cannot be used to create a decision-making process regarding his employment. 

And any ensuing legal action taken by either side to challenge the outcome will almost certainly get dismissed by a court under the ministerial exception doctrine

However, one possible solution exists, said Sarah Merkle, an attorney and senior editorial advisor for Church Law & Tax.

Markle is one of a only a few Certified Professional Parliamentarian-Teachers and Professional Registered Parliamentarians in the country. 

“I would have the congregation get together and adopt a set of rules to govern the process,” Merkle said. “They could do that by giving notice of the rules ahead of the meeting where they are proposed and requiring a super majority for adoption.”

Church Law & Tax partnered with Sarah Merkle in 2023 to bring you “Mastering Meeting Basics,” a five-step guide for planning, scheduling, and managing official church meetings.

A super majority would require approval by two-thirds of the votes cast by voting members present at the meeting.   

“If members can agree on a fair framework for making a decision, they can likely find their way out of this situation,” Merkle added.

Matthew Branaugh is an attorney, and the business owner for Church Law & Tax.

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