In a church tradition or denomination that carefully proscribes who may be a “minister,” “priest,” or “pastor,” persons that assist in worship, sacraments, church schools and other vital roles may not have a title of office that would neatly fit in the Ministerial Exception. Often the question with such employees is whether their role is sufficiently vital to religious services and advancement of the needs of the faith to be considered ministerial even if their title is not clearly related.
In Menard v Archdiocese of Boston, Slip Op. (Mass. 2020), the trial court considered the plaintiff’s employment contract and an article the Plaintiff wrote for the church newsletter in which the Plaintiff described the duties incumbent upon Plaintiff’s position. The consideration led to dismissal of the lawsuit pursuant to the Ministerial Exception. The appellate court affirmed. The Plaintiff was a Director of Music Ministries and could not be a priest or pastor. But, her duties as Director of Music “presuppose a significant knowledge of her faith’s musical canon, and the ability to transmit that knowledge and “convey the Church’s message.”” The decision was based on the newest United States Supreme Court pronouncement in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v Morrissey-Berru, U.S. Supreme Ct., Nos. 19-267 & 19-348, slip op. at 18 (July 8, 2020) which taught that “what matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.”
In cases of this type an employment contract is an invaluable documentation of the religious and secular duties of the employee. In this case, because the employee was of some longevity, the employee wrote a church newsletter article that dovetailed with the contract and explained the duties in the Plaintiff’s own words. Church newsletters are often invaluable sources of this type of information. Oddly, many churches do not keep file copies (paper or digital).