CHURCH BUILDING WOES AND WARS

A famous teacher of evangelical pastors once told me that pastors had no choice but to be jacks of all trades. In this blog, the cases reported involve everything from financial controls, zoning, internal security for vulnerable members, property titles, and corporate control issues, just to name a few.

In Christ’s Legacy Church v Trinity Group Architects, Inc., 2018 OK CIV APP 31 (oscn.net), a division of the Oklahoma Court of Appeals reviewed a trial court summary judgment in favor of an architectural firm in a case about the design of a church building. The church claimed the architectural firm was negligence and breached its contract. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment against the church as to the negligence claim but reversed and sent the case back to the trial court on the breach of contract claim. The architectural firm claimed the written proposal was not signed by the church so there was not a written contract. If there was only an oral contract, the statute of limitations was three years but if the contract was in writing the statute of limitations was five years. The Court of Appeals held it did not matter whether the proposal was actually signed if it, indeed, represented in writing the agreement of the parties and had been acknowledged in another way.

In the trial court, the church will have to prove the written proposal was the written contract under which the architectural firm did the work even without a signature. One change order to the “proposal,” or a couple of emails, or “in re” lines on a letter or a fax will probably do it. Thus, once again, a case may be determined on whether in the age of scanners and computers the church was a reasonable records custodian. The statute of limitations barred the negligence claim because the church did not, or could not, investigate fast enough to present a claim. Most volunteer run churches usually have no more than one or two FTEs neither of which are professional property managers so the time to investigate gets away quickly. Also, well-meaning church members tend to stand around and gawk at a problem none of them are fully competent to address. Church boards need to hire the professional that can address the problem, pay for the service, and get a definitive answer with dispatch, which may include trial counsel. Large engagements like engaging an architect to design a building require as stewardship a written contract signed by everyone. One more thing for the pastor to know, right?

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