While a court will typically refuse to reinstate a defrocked or fired pastor under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine or the “ministerial exception,” in most states a purely contract based dispute will be heard under neutral contract principles. In most states, the contract will be enforced as written or legal defenses to contracts will be considered.
In Bigelow v Sassafras Grove Baptist Church, Slip Op. (NC App. 2016), the Pastor and the church entered into an employment contract that contained a disability provision. In case it is not obvious, the contract did not require that the Pastor remain at his post to receive the disability benefits. The disability benefit provided by the contract was that the church would pay salary and medical benefits if the Pastor became disabled during the twelve year term of the contract, which might turn out to be several years in this particular case if the contract was enforced.
The trial court dismissed the case under the aforementioned 1st Amendment doctrines. The appellate court reversed the dismissal and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings, which would probably include discovery and trial until verdict or settlement. The reversal was based on a thorough review of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the “ministerial exception,” and the conclusion that neutral contract law principles governed the dispute.
The contract was, in part, quoted in the court opinion. The contract was clearly not drafted by a lawyer. Drafting errors may have resulted in confusion about the terms agreed upon or the full extent of the promises exchanged, especially duration of the promises. Further, the disability insurance policy in effect at the inception of the contract was no longer in force and it seems likely the church did not anticipate that the loss of that coverage might or might not expand the financial commitment. The portion of the contract quoted did not specify which party had the obligation to keep the disability coverage in force. If that was the Pastor’s duty, then the church might have a setoff to assert.
Employment contracts are generally enforceable between Pastors and churches as to financial terms, but not as to actual employment. If the church removes the Pastor from that position, no court will intervene, even if the financial aspects of the contract are still enforceable.