To escape from the confines of the hierarchical church governing rules and documents a local church will often allege all sorts of things. In Alpine Methodist v New Jersey United Methodist Church, Slip. Op. (Sup. Court NJ App. 2017), the plaintiff alleged it pre-existed the existence of the denominational authority and therefore was not subject to the property reversionary requirement in the denominational manual. However, the Court found there was no evidence to explain that after the denominational authority was established the plaintiff had acted as anything other than a full member for many decades. The plaintiff also alleged that a retired pastor was guilty of misappropriation of funds. The denomination heard the allegation and refused to proceed with a disciplinary action. The plaintiff alleged that the failure to act left the plaintiff with no forum or relief. But, the Court held the refusal by the denomination to engage a disciplinary process was ecclesiastically binding.
Interesting in the case was that the Plaintiff, the local church, engaged a private investigator to conduct an inquiry into the alleged financial misconduct. The evidence of financial misconduct did not lead the local church to seek a criminal charge or to engage in its own disciplinary complaint with the denomination. Instead, the church sought relief in court. Interesting, too, was that the private detective admitted that the local church was subject to the denominational manual.
Retention of a licensed private detective, who in this case was also a retired police officer, was probably a good call in order to document what happened to the money. The best practice would be to have the detective report to the church legal counsel and work under the supervision of counsel. A certified public account should also have been consulted to review the opportunities for financial misconduct inhering in the church’s financial system and suggest reforms. If criminal charges, a collection action, or a disciplinary proceeding are not preferred, one or all three should only be deferred if the wrongdoer signs a written admission of all of the known facts about the financial misconduct. Wrongdoers are usually gone, dead or insolvent, so collection actions are typically pointless.