Church splits that spill out into the street and the Courts often lead people that have never been through one to react with judgmental disdain. The lesson of these conflicts, however, should not be missed. First, very often, “but for the grace of God go I,” is usually true of those who react with judgmental disdain whether they admit it or know it. Second, a church split often resembles, at least to this observer, a divorce with some of the same or very similar emotional drives and fallout. Third, the causes of a church split are from the outside often incomprehensible; they seem irrational. Fourth, on the inside, the irrationality of the church split is not apparent because convoluted emotional reasoning has often replaced reason and unthinkable motives like greed, lust for power, or primal fear threat reactions run rampant.
While the summer production of court opinions is often slower, this summer the Supreme Court of Alabama has issued, subject to revision, an opinion over 11,000 words long about church splits. Taylor v Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, Slip. Op. (Ala. 2017). The opinion is notable because Alabama has declared that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine deprived the Alabama courts of jurisdiction to resolve a church split by declaring who was the elected pastor of the congregation. The congregation was left to resolve the church split without resolution of the dispute by a Court. Legal fees and five years of litigation ended with a dismissal of the case and no verdict.
The stupendous effort of the Alabama Supreme Court to “get it right” in this lengthy opinion was necessitated because a church with sixteen (16) members fractured into two (2) groups. One group favored terminating and replacing the pastor. The pastor led the resistance group. Although the church was congregational, it belonged to an association and engaged a mediator from the association. But, the failure to settle led to litigation in 2012 that resulted in five years of employment for lawyers and the Supreme Court opinion summarized herein.
Structurally, while the church had bylaws, it had not adjusted the bylaws to its diminutive size and did not elect the boards called for in their own bylaws. Thus, the church learned the cost of operating like a rabble. There appears to be a lack of convention speakers on the dangers of mob rule and no course in bible colleges in church administration.
No doubt, normal economic forces will resolve a church split, e.g., foreclosure, inability to pay the pastor, that cannot be resolved in Court. If normal economic forces do not resolve it, other events in the lives of the disputants inevitably will resolve the church split, e.g., death, divorce, retirement, illness, loss of interest. Rarely, a mediator will be engaged to resolve it. Nevertheless, most church splits end by one of these means rather than by Court judgment. In most states, a Court will finally resolve it by employing neutral principles of law. But, not in Alabama if the result is the appointment of the pastor. If the result is control of property, the result might be different, because the Court stated: “As discussed above, the removal of Taylor as the pastor of PMBC was purely an ecclesiastical matter not involving a property right and the trial court lacked the jurisdiction to consider it.”
The Alabama Supreme Court opinion is also notable, and long, because of its recital of the century long history of church split litigation in Alabama. This by itself made the opinion interesting.