CHURCH DEATH: AN AUTOPSY

While churches and para-church organizations seem to go through life cycles, some do die. Church death has many causes including changing demographics, changing worship modalities, location, and many others which sometimes may include a fundamental flaw in the reason for their establishment. Some churches were founded on what seemed like a prophetically driven vision that in the passage of time was rendered obsolete by the march of history.

In Ferrel v Israelite House of David, Slip Op. (unpublished) (Mich. App. 2020), the defendant was founded in 1903 to “lead the faithful to the ‘ingathering’ of Israel” in the final days. The Defendant was converted to what today we might call a para-church organization in 1908 (then called a “voluntary religious organization”). In 1904, the Defendant created a “colony” in Australia but by 2010 all members located there had died. The “colony” property, however, was worth $50,000,000 after a century of inflation. The property was managed by accountants and lawyers. In 2012, one of the last US resident members and an officer of the Defendant, tasked the Plaintiff with re-establishing the colony. The Plaintiff began this work but eventually, with the permission of the leadership in the US, established a “way station” in Hawaii. The “way station” in Hawaii was to be a “resting place” between the colony in Australia and the headquarters in Michigan for use of the faithful as they returned from Australia to “repopulate the earth.” However, the Defendant accused the Plaintiff of lavish living in Hawaii using the Defendant’s money and property. The Defendant excommunicated the Plaintiff and recovered its property. A Settlement Agreement in 2013 between the Plaintiff and Defendant included a clause in which the Plaintiff “irrevocably relinquished” membership and resigned all offices. The officer of the Defendant that originally tasked Plaintiff with re-establishing the Australian “colony,” authorized establishment of the “way station” in Hawaii, then excommunicated Plaintiff, died. However, prior to her passing she appointed successors. The Plaintiff sued alleging that the appointed successors were mere interlopers and that the Plaintiff was the last true believer and should be reinstated as an officer or trustee. The Plaintiff alleged he faced the “specter of being deprived of salvation.” The trial court held the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine precluded a determination by the Court whether the appointed successors were insincere. The trial court held the Plaintiff, excommunicated and having relinquished membership in the Settlement Agreement, had no standing to sue. The appellate court affirmed.

We have reported several cases of founding clergy that left no plan of succession, or had a bad plan, resulting in factionalism and lawsuits. While this odd para-church organization might not be much of an example to the average church, the succession plan should be if for no other reason than it held. Founding clergy that personally holds title to the church property has no valid succession plan if the succession is by someone that cannot overcome factionalism and hold the church together.

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