PASTOR EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS AND THE MINISTERIAL EXCEPTION

One of the interesting questions in church law is whether an employment contract with a pastor overrides the Ministerial Exception.  The Ministerial Exception is the label for the First Amendment doctrine which excludes some church employment issues from governance by secular law or secular courts.  Indeed, the uncertainty in recent years has been to determine the other church jobs that were outside the scope of court and regulatory jurisdiction.  Of course, ministers, priests and pastors were outside the scope.  Employment contracts raise the uncertainty of whether they remain outside the scope in whole or in part.

In Rev. Lee v Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Slip Op., 2017 WL 3508140 (WD Penn. 2017) the federal court carefully traced the contours of a written employment agreement with a senior pastor to determine whether the employment relationship or parts of it had been carried outside of the Ministerial Exception.  The opinion also contained most of the salient terms of the employment agreement verbatim which might also assist practitioners.  The question the court answered was whether the employment contract terminated the applicability of the Ministerial Exception.  The Court held that the Ministerial Exception had, indeed, been preserved in its applicability to termination of the pastor by the employment contract.  Of course, that reserved for a future case whether some other contract might not.

The language in the employment contract that preserved the Ministerial Exception was a catch all reserve clause that merely stated termination could be “by law” and on “other grounds.”  The employment contract also specified “for cause” termination grounds and the church was claiming that the “for cause” grounds had been triggered.  The church put on evidence of declining attendance and declining finances, both of which the church labeled as “spiritual stewardship” and “financial stewardship” in the employment contract.  The Court held that these grounds for termination were ecclesiastical and triggered the Ministerial Exception because to decide them would lead to “excessive entanglement” in church affairs.  For example, the Court would have to decide whether the cause of declining finances was due to mismanagement or declining giving reflecting a loss of confidence in the pastor either of which could be ecclesiastic.

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