A well known teacher of church development and advanced training for pastors once told me that pastors, regardless of denomination, in the 21st century are required to be more than knowledgeable about the Scriptures or counseling but also must be adroit in finance, accounting, management, real estate, and technology. The observation seemed to reflect the seeming truth that the 20th century level of complexity may have allowed reliance on other church leaders that were not clergy, such as church boards or a diaconate, but that is rarely adequate now. Thus, church staff now include many people with a broad range of skill sets. The question becomes whether those types of positions are ecclesiastical, or “sufficiently” so, to qualify for the “immunity” conferred by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.
In Kelly v St. Luke Community United Methodist, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 5th, 2018), the “Director of Operations” was terminated and escorted from the church property by the pastor and a police officer engaged for that purpose. The Director lodged employment claims and a defamation claim. The defamation claim was that the personnel action of the church was communicated to non-member third parties, such as the police officer, and non-members that may have attended meetings of the membership in which the personnel action was announced. The termination was alleged by the church not to have been performance based but rather the result of an internal reorganization of the church. The Director’s $82,000 annual position was allegedly scrapped and a new Director’s position redesigned in the reorganization was offered at $50,000. The Court recited claims from both sides that indicated that the relationship between the new senior pastor and the Director was possibly problematic and that the senior pastor might have considered the Director’s compensation too high for the position. The Court held the reorganization was an internal church management decision cloaked in the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and that it did not matter whether the Director’s position was “ministerial.” The defamation claim was found not to be based on a scintilla of evidence of publication, i.e., there was no proof of defamation at any meeting the public could attend and the engagement of the police officer did not rise to the level of publication. Thus, the appellate court generally affirmed the trial court decision (for this summary Texas law specifics have been omitted but would matter to a Texas practitioner).
Employment decisions that arise from actual internal reorganizations by the church will likely be viewed as ecclesiastical. Employment positions redesigned by changes in duties and compensation will likewise most likely be viewed as ecclesiastical decisions. Documentation of the decisions by minutes of meetings conducted consistently with the church governing documents that approve or implement either will likely be respected by a Court.