In evangelical churches not governed by a hierarchical denomination, sometimes the brawl spills out into the street.
In St. Union Baptist Church, Inc. v Howard (AL., 2016)(slip op), the Pastor tried to fire the board of deacons. A few months later, the deacons tried to fire the Pastor at a congregational meeting. The opinion of the court is not completely clear on whether the action was unilateral by the board or whether it resulted from a congregational vote. The Pastor “declined to leave his position” and a couple of months later the Pastor called a congregational meeting in which 47 members voted. The court opinion reflected that the second congregational meeting resulted in a vote in favor of the Pastor. The board did not accept the second congregational meeting vote and the situation persisted for two years. The board still had control of the finances and at the end of the two year stalemate stopped paying the Pastor. The Pastor issued an announcement that as of the second congregational meeting the board had been terminated and the church had no deacons.
The Pastor decided to break the stalemate by resigning in exchange for payment of $16,600 and a written agreement was signed and the money paid. A month later, the Pastor rescinded his resignation. The board through the church corporation sued the Pastor for breach of contract. The Pastor counterclaimed for conversion, conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duty.
The Court, under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, refused to allow decision of the effectiveness of the resignation or whether the written agreement had been breached, because “in a Baptist Church, the congregation rules” and could hire, fire or rehire. Slip. Op. at 19.
The Court, however, remanded to the trial court the Pastor’s counterclaims regarding financial matters because “unlike the selection of a pastor, these are not ecclesiastical issues that a court lacks jurisdiction to consider.” Slip Op. at 20.
The opinion of the majority drew concurring and dissenting opinions. One concurring opinion noted the church corporation had not made a claim for recovery of the $16,600 and opined that would not be an ecclesiastic issue requiring abstention.
One lesson that can be gleaned from the foregoing is that votes, be they by a church board in its official minutes or by a congregation, should be carefully documented. The first congregational meeting is not reported by the court as culminating in a vote. Churches, as volunteer organizations, are often not careful about documenting there official actions. Church board members are typically not paid and tend to view their volunteer service as somehow different in character from their work, businesses, and personal finances.