A friend once reminded me that everything is bigger in Texas. That appears to apply to church splits, too. In Mouton v Christian Faith Missionary Baptist Church, Slip. Op. (Tex. Civ. App.-1st Dist., 2016), the Pastor died and a pulpit committee was selected to nominate a successor for a congregational vote to approve or reject. The pulpit committee nominated the deceased Pastor’s son as the successor Pastor. However, certain other church officers objected. They filed the first lawsuit to enjoin the congregational vote on the nomination in 2012. The trial court dismissed the case.
A congregational meeting was convened and the pulpit committee members and the son of the deceased Pastor were expelled from the church and a new Pastor was elected a month later, seemingly after a nomination by a new pulpit committee and in a second congregational meeting. The expelled pulpit committee decided to change the signature cards on the church bank accounts to obtain control of the accounts. But, the current signatory on the accounts would not confirm their authorization to do so. The bank filed an interpleader action, i.e., the second lawsuit. The bank account balances were ordered paid into the registry of the court and the trial court dismissed the claims of both groups, the prior pulpit committee and the newer pulpit committee. The prior pulpit committee also tried to replace church officers by filing a certificate with the secretary of state of Texas. But, prior such filings had been approved by the Pastor and because there was not one at the time of the filing, the court disregarded it. The trial court decision was affirmed by the appellate in the first appeal in 2014.
The parties returned to the trial court, without the bank this time, and resumed their cross claims against one another. The trial court dismissed all claims for lack of jurisdiction under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The appellate court again affirmed the trial court. The appellate court held that merely because the bylaws of the church mandated a pastoral selection process did not did not make the claims of the parties “categorically reviewable by a civil court.” In other words, the courts of Texas would not select a Pastor and would not decide who was expelled from membership. Clearly, there had been a congregational vote and as far as the Court seemed concerned, that was the end of it. That the congregation may or may not have perfectly followed its bylaws by ousting one pulpit committee in favor of another was within the congregation’s prerogatives. Thus, the new Pastor remained in place and the members on the first pulpit committee remained expelled, and this group recovered the bank account balances from the court registry in the fullness of time.
The flaw in the bylaws that might have contributed to this problem was that the bylaws (as quoted by the court) did not with great clarity specify how a pulpit committee would be selected. The reality, too, was that the congregation could vote one way and be reconvened to vote another way even a short time later. One possible consideration is that a church that has lost a Pastor to death, retirement or attrition of any kind may want to consider engaging temporary pastors for as much as a year not only so that a careful pulpit committee search can be conducted, but to allow the congregation to adjust to the idea of a new pastor.