Congregations can be fickle. Every pastor knows the congregation can vote with their feet, i.e., leave; vote with their money, i.e., give less to the church; and change the channel, i.e., look for better religious entertainment. Some churches change pastors every three or four years in some sort of misguided search for the “right fit,” or the right dynamism. In response, in order to obtain some level of stability, pastors sometimes negotiate employment contracts.
In Lee v Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Slip Op. (3rd Cir. 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed a Pennsylvania federal trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment to a church in a breach of employment contract case. The trial court granted summary judgment to the church, even though the church was not moving for summary judgment but was only resisting the motion for summary judgment presented by the former pastor. The former pastor sued because he was terminated by the church twenty months into his twenty year written employment contract. The employment contract permitted termination for cause and for “material breach.” At the congregational meeting voting to confirm the employment contract, the pastor himself defined “material breach” as “not growing,” “stagnant,” “not a better place,” and “if he did not perform his duties well.” The church alleged it experienced a 39% decline in collections, a 32% drop in Sunday worship attendance, a 61% decrease in registered members, a doubling of church expenditures, and a decline in church “community outreach.” The pastor did not deny those facts but alleged his service was not the cause of those changes in the church. The pastor sought damages of more than $2,000,000 for the income lost in the unexpired term of the contract. The trial court granted summary judgment to the church because to resolve the case would, the trial court held, impermissibly entangle the court in determining whether Lee’s ministry as pastor was “adequate spiritual leadership” and “how that translates into donations and attendance.” Such inquiries, the Court held, would violate the First Amendment ministerial exception as explicated in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v EEOC, 565 US 171 (2012) because the Court would entangle itself in a factual inquiry as to whether the church’s defenses were a pretext.
There are lessons here from two perspectives. The pastor probably should not have agreed in a congregational meeting to define “material breach” as he did. This undoubtedly created a high expectation too early in the relationship and a numerical metric both of which would fluctuate subjectively and objectively in the short term while the contract was designed for a long term. The church maintained its options by incorporating the church bylaws as a material term in the employment contract which required that the pastor provide “spiritual leadership,” a role a secular court cannot evaluate.