The passing of a founding pastor by death or retirement often is the opening event in a church split. Also, founding pastors of earlier years did not see the need for governance documents that provided for succession. The thought in the last generation was that such provisions weakened the pastor and invited rebellion. What it actually invited was the destruction of all that had been achieved by the founding pastor when the church, without a succession plan in the governing documents, fell into factional strife or a civil war. Church splits in these circumstances are not surprisingly intractable.

In Nelson v Brewer, 2019 IL App (1st) 173143, the Illinois appellate court affirmed the trial court’s efforts to save the church by holding that neither the plaintiffs nor the defendants were properly elected or appointed church board members or pastors and that the church governance documents did not comply with state corporation law. There was no plan of succession in the documents and the founding pastor, the only one with any authority, had passed away. One faction tried to lock out the other. The court ordered the factions to avoid any contact. The trial court then appointed a “custodian,” a type of corporate guardian, to rewrite the church governance documents, to conduct congregational elections of board members and a pastor, and to otherwise manage the resuscitation of the corporate entity. The alternative was corporate dissolution and liquidation of all assets. It appeared that there only 28 voting members left after eight years of litigation.

While many church members and leaders met by the author over the years pride themselves on the paucity of their church governance documents, those same members and leaders often appear as factional leaders in a church split. Invariably, it seems, when a generation that was able to maintain harmony begins to pass away without a clear succession plan, competitive factions arise. The failure to plan for the passing of the torch to successors in governance documents is irresponsible and unfair to the members that do not have ambitions other than to see their church home survive.

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