OUTBREAKS OF CONGREGATIONAL DEMOCRACY

There is no particular legal argument local denominational churches can use to escape “trust clauses.” A “trust clause” typically means that the local church property and assets will revert to or taken over by the denomination if the local church no longer functionally exists. The motion common unsuccessful legal argument is that the local church conducted a “congregational meeting” and exited from the denomination. However, it is usually impossible for the local church to prove that there was an actual “congregational meeting” called or conducted consistent with the local church bylaws or the denominational governance documents.

In Presbyterian Church of the Palisades, Inc. v Hwang, Slip Op. (Sup NJ Chancery Div., 2019), a faction or remnant of the local church tried to defeat the “trust clause” by arguing a congregational meeting was convened to extract the local church from the denomination. The argument that the “will” of the congregation can be determined using Neutral Principles of Law, typically state corporate law, has not been available since it was rejected by the United States Supreme Court in 1969 and it was not resurrected in this case. In this case, too, the corporate minutes did not document that a congregational meeting was called consistent with the state statute or the local church bylaws. Indeed, the proof did not appear to support the assertion there had been such a meeting. Also, the faction remaining did not appear to have been properly elected to office. Summary judgment for the denomination was affirmed. The parallel foreclosure on the church property because of the default on the $2.7 million mortgage was also allowed to proceed.

Joining a denomination is easy and departing is nearly impossible. It is usually faster and cheaper for a congregation that desires to depart from a denomination to simply leave the church property and start over again elsewhere. Few congregations survive either staying and fighting with the denomination or leaving, but leaving presents the greater chance. The emotional attachment to a church property always seems misplaced.

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