The Ministerial Exception generally precludes secular court review of employment decisions. The label itself arose from the short hand name affixed to such an exception found in some federal employment discrimination statutes. More loosely used in its First Amendment context, the doctrine generally puts hiring and firing decisions regarding pastors out of the reach of litigation. But, the Ministerial Exception rarely prohibits litigation regarding employment and benefit contract rights.
In Flakes v New Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church, Slip Op. (Mich. App. 2019), the decision of the trial court granting summary judgment to the church was reversed. While the case originated as a lawsuit seeking reinstatement to the pulpit, the Plaintiff realized that was not legally available, abandoned reinstatement, and asserted only a salary dispute. The trial court, for whatever reasons, did not differentiate between reinstatement and a salary dispute and dismissed the case. The appellate court, however, reversed so that the trial court could reconsider whether the salary dispute, a creature of contract, could be determined without inquiring in ecclesiastical considerations. While that outcome seemed to be obvious from the short opinion, the more interesting question was remanded to the trial court. It was alleged by the church that the pastor was engaged pursuant to a written independent contractor agreement. The minister alleged that a year later a congregational vote called him as a pastor and he served in the position until the congregation terminated him seven years later.
Whether the action of the congregation to call the pastor a year after the original engagement pursuant to an independent contractor agreement in fact imposed a new contract will be an interesting dispute. Apparently, a new employment contract was not entered into after the call of the congregation. The independent contractor agreement was silent, apparently, on whether a subsequent congregational vote had any impact. The church governing documents, such as bylaws, may resolve or further complicate the dispute. The argument that the independent contractor agreement could only be amended in writing may have been fulfilled if the congregational vote calling the pastor was memorialized in governing board minutes or a church bulletin.