Occasionally, churches get into bad habits. Such a church may adopt a set of bylaws and a constitution when the church is formed but ignore them for decades. Eventually, however, church growth, maturation, or a dispute force the bylaws and constitution into the light and into use. The argument that the bylaws and constitution “aren’t the way we have done it” may not preserve seemingly long-established tradition. If a church ends up in a court of law on an issue that would otherwise be governed by the constitution and bylaws, tradition, especially oral and anecdotal, will be hard to prove and very unlikely to be recognized as controlling.

In Leggett v True Zion, 2018 IL App (1st) 171101 (Slip Op.) (Ill. App. 2018), prior church leadership wanted to select the new pastor and new board of directors. The congregation, however, decided to follow their bylaws and the board recorded in their minutes that the congregational meeting would be called consistent with the bylaws. The Plaintiffs actually attended the congregational meeting, which waived any notice issue, but “declined” to vote. The plaintiffs filed suit challenging the authority of the congregational meeting to select a new pastor and the new board of directors and alleged the church tradition was that the pastor would be selected by the church “overseer” and not by the board and confirmed by a congregational vote.  The bylaws were consistent with Illinois non-profit corporation governing statutes.  The trial court dismissed the case with prejudice and the appellate court affirmed.

Church corporation governance documents are important in a church dispute. Bylaws should be followed, written minutes of meetings consistent with the bylaws should be maintained, and every couple of years the bylaws should be updated, if needed, using the procedure in the bylaws for doing so. Tradition is a relic of the past in church governance. If the tradition is that important, or deemed as a spiritual requirement, the bylaws should be amended to incorporate and spell out the tradition. If the tradition is not a relic, stop treating it like one. Even small churches have enormous financial assets compared to their size. No one would want to own a home without a valid title (and probably valid title insurance) and valid homeowners’ insurance by relying on their tradition of living there and paying the bills.

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