Most churches that terminate an employee, and possibly pay a severance, would not likely continue compensation to even a former ministerial employee. However, due to the distinctly different nature of some hierarchical churches, it can happen as a matter of church polity. In non-hierarchical churches and denominations, it can happen because of sympathy.
In the case of In Re Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso, Slip Op. (Tex. App. 8th, 2021), the former clergyman was placed on administrative leave and his “faculty” removed in 1999. In other words, the clergyman was no longer “licensed” to perform clerical duties. The clergyman was paid monthly payments that church cannon law named “decent support.” The payments and administrative leave arose from a criminal charge that was later dismissed. In 2016, the church reduced the monthly payments by 44%. Even though the church issued a W2 and sometimes referred to the monthly payment as “payroll,” the Court held the payment was governed by canon law, was classified as charity by canon law, and was under the discretion of the presiding bishop as to amount. There was no employment contract between the former clergyman and the church. The former clergyman sued and claimed the monthly payment reduction was motivated by age discrimination. The appellate court ordered the trial court to dismiss the case pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The opinion explored every plausible way in which the claim could be developed and determined that all roads led to a collision with canon law, an area in which the Courts would not intrude.
Termination of a clergyman for most churches does not present viable post-termination non-contractual claims. If the termination itself is outside of the jurisdiction of a court because of the Ministerial Exception or the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, post-termination events rarely arise. Severance packages and, as in the reported case, a charitable allocation for “decent support,” may form the factual basis for post-termination claims. However, written post-termination severance packages are usually contractual and if all the compensatory terms are met, no plausible claim survives. In any event, if termination is warranted vacillation, no matter how well intended, will prove up the worldly maxim that “no good deed goes unpunished.”