It is a little known fact that contracts without temporal limitations will often not fit the situation after the passage of time.  A church that enters into a contract to avoid a legal dispute but does not limit the scope of the contract may have to buy out the contract to meet a future need.  If buying it is problematic or too costly, then the church may be stuck with keeping its word for what might seem like eternity while the circumstances change.

In Abel v Pawleys Island Community Church, Slip Op. (SC App. 2017), the church in 2000 filed an application for a permit to fill in wetlands during the construction of a new sanctuary.  The application was challenged and the church, probably to break the log jam, agreed to a settlement agreement, i.e., a contract.  From the settlement agreement a consent decree agreed to by the parties was issued, which stated:  “The Church agrees that the wetland preserved by this Consent Order shall remain in its natural state.”  In 2014, the church sought to modify the consent decree, the original challengers objected and accused the church of welching on the 2000 deal.

The appellate court enforced the settlement agreement, and thus the original consent decree, and noted “[w]e find the explanatory opening paragraph to the consent order does not create a temporal restriction on the nine clauses contained therein.”

While it was expedient to make a deal in 2000 so that construction of the sanctuary could proceed, and possibly it was not then predictable that someday might bring a need to change the deal, nevertheless someday inexorably came along with a need to modify the consent decree.  It is possible the settlement could not have been reached with a temporal limitation imposed.  It is likely that the push to complete the sanctuary on time and on budget caused undue haste.  Regardless, churches must take contracts seriously before too easily agreeing.

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