CHURCH MEMBERSHIP UNDER SECULAR LAW

In many posts we have reported court opinions that resolved disputes by using only the denominational or local church governance documents. However, there may be some disputes that cannot be resolved using Neutral Principles of Law to enforce the governance documents. Membership verification may be one of those.

In Ceglar v Christ’s Harbor Church, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 2020) the trial court held verifying the 25 plaintiffs were actually church members required ecclesiastical determinations the Court was prohibited, and unwilling, to make. The appellate court affirmed and the case was dismissed. The newly hired pastor was accused of “inappropriate behavior and misconduct” by two female members. A faction of the membership demanded a congregational meeting to determine the pastor’s employment fate, but the church board never convened the meeting. Six months later the lawsuit followed. The membership secretary affirmed the plaintiffs were on the church membership rolls but a church board member testified the plaintiffs were for the most part expunged from the membership rolls after ninety days of non-attendance. The ninety-day rule was not in the governance documents but was put forth as an interpretation of the governance documents membership clause. To resolve whether listing on the membership roll or a ninety-day membership cancellation was dispositive, the Court held, would require an ecclesiastical determination by the Court.

Purging membership rolls every ninety days seems unworkable in a volunteer organization like a church and somewhat contrary to the inclusiveness most churches want to offer. Nevertheless, if that is the “rule,” the purge process should be carried out in a disciplined manner. Annual membership roll “clean up” is the preferred practice so that the qualified voters in congregational meetings can be identified and counted. The court was completely silent on whether the church board investigated or whether the allegations against the pastor were determined “not credible.”

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