The lack of any written contract will generally make a Pastor an at will employee. Termination would be governed by the church or denominational governing documents however the process may be outside the reach of a secular court because of ecclesiastical concerns. When there is a written employment agreement, secular contract terms in a pastor’s written employment contract may be subject to the Neutral Principles of Law in many jurisdictions such that a breach of contract action might be successful. However, termination decisions are generally at best both religious, or moral, and secular decisions the mix of which might put the termination decision outside of the reach of a secular court. Thus, enforcing a secular contract term in a termination may be problematic. Because of the entanglement between religious reasons for termination and secular reasons for termination of a minister, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment will generally preclude judicial intervention in terminations. Some judges, and some courts, will believe the secular contract terms can be surgically separated from the termination. However, it seems that most courts will not be comfortable trying to parse the factual issues.
In the case of In Re First Christian Methodist Evangelistic Church, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 5th, Dallas, 2019), the appellate court ordered the trial to court to dismiss the case. The trial court apparently believed it could parse secular contract issues, such as entitlement to a six-month severance, from whether the termination was for religious cause. Because the termination resulted from a vote of the qualified congregation members, verifying the exact reasons for termination would have required an exhaustive inquiry. At the end of the factual inquiry, there still would have been no logical way to separate the termination of the pastor from religious reasons that might or might not impact the right to severance.
Pastors should avoid “for cause” termination provisions. A church will always have a “for cause” basis if pressed. Such a clause probably offers no protection. If there is a severance provision negotiated, it should be triggered on involuntary termination only and not on the reason for the termination. The Pastor may be unable to enforce the provision if a severance provision is dependent on conduct. The “I did nothing wrong” defense tends to be irrelevant to courts if the claimed “wrong” is religious in nature. Because it is unlikely the severance package negotiated at the date of hire is likely to be as expensive as litigation, the hiring church might share that preference with the Pastor. For the church, finality in the conclusion of the relationship may be more cost effective than a prolonged dispute over whether a severance package is “deserved.”