When a church divides into factions, the conflict can escalate. The conflict can spill into the street. The conflict can reach the courts. Sometimes the conflict will spawn multiple court proceedings. Usually the cost of litigation dampens the enthusiasm for secular court resolution. The narrow scope of court jurisdiction renders court resolution unsatisfying. Factions often want vindication rather than simply restored order or control. Vindication is often not available in court.
In Stewart v McCray, Slip Op. (Ind. App. 2019) the church split turned into a war of attrition. Neither side seemed able to gather the strength to vanquish the other but both were uncommonly resilient. At least two lawsuits resulted and in the second, the trial court tried to manage the process required by the bylaws of the congregational church to resolve church governance issues. In the second lawsuit, the trial court’s orders were blatantly disobeyed by one faction. The pastor that was also the leader of one faction was held in contempt and sentenced to pay attorney fees and jail time of thirty days. The sentence was stayed pending appeal. The appellate court reversed the trial court and held the second lawsuit should have been dismissed at inception for lack of jurisdiction. The lack of jurisdiction made void ab initio all of the orders of the trial court in the case, including the contempt. The second lawsuit, the appellate court held, should have been dismissed because the only issues presented in it were church governance issues consideration of which transected the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The first lawsuit involved only issues of control of property and assets.
Hesitation and slowness to act will never be forgiven by the future burdened with the deepening rift. In church split litigation, there is only one goal that matters: control of the property and assets. Once control is achieved, there is only one final resolution available: declare the dissidents to be trespassers, seek their arrest if they return, and cut off their access to funds. If a pastor is involved in the group excluded from control, terminate the salary and other benefits immediately. If a congregational vote is required to terminate the pastor conduct it according to the bylaws. The congregational meeting that is called in which the vote is to be conducted should have a single agenda item and no discussion needs to be permitted. Church leadership that regains control after an attempted usurpation by a faction led by a pastor must be quickly excised or the split will never end. If the church cannot survive the cure, then foreclosure will allow a new church to be born. The foregoing does not apply to less confrontational temper flare-ups in a congregation that can be resolved with a congregational meeting to air grievances and reach compromises.