Courts often resolve disputes in ways that neither side wanted, liked, or ever believed was a possible outcome. This is especially true in church litigation when courts find jurisdiction to decide one issue in a church split but lack jurisdiction to decide other issues. The partial rulings that result may also leave some disputes only partly resolved.
In Davis v New Zion Baptist Church, Slip Op., (NC App. 2018), the church split spilled into the street resulting in trial court proceedings that led to an appeal in 2015, was remanded for additional proceedings, and appealed a second time. The combatants in this church split certainly believed in full employment for lawyers. The church bylaws were not followed in 2013 when the then church leadership attempted to amend them. Further, the bylaws were so badly written there was no procedure for removal of church board members and no procedure for elections of replacements. The trial court held the attempted bylaw amendments in 2013 were void based on “neutral principles of law.” The trial court reasoned, as did the prior appeal ruling, that bylaws governed more than ecclesiastical matters, such as property, finances and contracts, and were subject to neutral principles of law. The trial court refused to rule on whether the church board members were properly elected but ordered the church to hold general elections within 90 days. The court of appeals affirmed the voiding of the bylaw amendments but reversed the election order, holding that because the bylaws were silent as to election procedure, that was solely an internal church matter. The net result was that the church leadership remained in office pending future elections but the bylaw amendments would have to be resubmitted in accord with the bylaws. Also, the church leadership decision to disfellowship the Plaintiffs did not impact the lawsuit because the alleged wrongs occurred while they were still members but the court did not reverse their loss of membership.
One lesson to be drawn is that bylaws matter and should be competently drafted and regularly updated with the help of a lawyer hired to assist. The lawyer selected for the task should know something of the corporation laws of the state of incorporation of the church. The adoption of bylaws and amendments should be carefully implemented using the language of the bylaws. Bylaws should be considered regularly and not during controversy. The temptation to tweak the bylaws for advantage becomes too strong at such times. Another lesson is the “official” church membership rolls should be maintained and updated at least annually in congregation run churches. Regular updates will mean that when they are needed to determine who can vote they will be available and most probably were last updated outside of the time when a controversy arose. Both of these lessons, bylaws and membership rolls, are as important or more important for the church with one hundred members as the church with a thousand members. Church split lawsuits usually involve smaller rather than larger churches.