Too often the pastor going out the door wants to take the door with him. That generally reflects poor church management such that at the end of what should be a long and honored tenure there is no fully funded retirement plan. Pastors need a portable retirement plan to which employing congregations can contribute. Any church that lacks this creates the framework for poverty or a dispute.
In National Church of God v Carrington, 2017 NY Slip Op 51007 (NY Sup 2017), the trial court excellently detailed such a situation. Carrington was the founder of the church in 1980 and may have gotten the church property started by his own contributions. The church was apparently small because a church list from 2015 numbered the members at 47. Nevertheless, the church property was noted by the Court to be valued at $2,000,000 debt free. Like a lot of churches started by a founder the church had no constitution or bylaws, did not follow the corporations statute, did not have regular congregational meetings, boards appointed only by the pastor in contravention of the statutes and the certificate of incorporation and had only ad hoc leadership outside of Carrington. In the dispute that inevitably arose over the habitual if not also resulting lack of financial transparency, Carrington’s faction locked out the church board elected by the congregation in 2015 after the new church board tried to lock him out. Carrington tried to transfer the title to the property to a new church entity and his lock out of the congregation deprived the church of its sanctuary. The elected church board was able to prove its validity and the Court enjoined Carrington from transferring the title and ended the lock out.
Some pastors seem to have the idea that they own the church property. That is rarely true. Even a founder of many years will typically find they have created a non-profit entity funded by members that have an interest in the church property, and usually the overwhelming interest. Long term pastors should recognize the need to plan for a transition and retirement. It should be discussed with the church leadership which should be composed of regularly elected members. Some churches have non-member advisory boards and such a process might work as well. The retirement plan should be adopted by a vote of the congregation and entered into like any other contract.