Congregational churches are governed by leadership typically elected by the members. In some, the clergy, too, are hired by congregational votes rather than by elected officers. Most have boards of elected leaders that set policy. These boards bear names consistent with the doctrinal precepts of the congregation, e.g., “Elders,” “Deacons,” “Church Board.” The powers of the church board are typically set forth in the church governance documents, usually a constitution and bylaws.
In Howard v Heritage Fellowship Church, Slip Op. (VA. 19th Cir. Fairfax 2021), the Court overruled a Motion to Dismiss by the church. The Plaintiffs were church members that alleged that the church board revised the membership roll a second time, purging over three hundred from the membership roll, after the unsuccessful election of a senior pastor to convert it to a successful election by 2/3rds of the voting members. The Plaintiffs alleged that the church board’s actions violated the church governance documents. The Court held that a civil lawsuit regarding whether the actions of the church board were in violation of the governance documents could be decided by application of Neutral Principles of Law. The Court held no inquiry into ecclesiastical issues was required. The Court held the Ministerial Exception did not apply because there was no issue regarding the competence of the candidate for senior pastor but only a question as to whether the post-election recount after a post–election second revision of the membership rolls violated the governance documents. Also, the Court held the Plaintiff’s request for appointment of a receiver to protect assets until the senior pastor’s position was filled also did not require ecclesiastic inquiries.
For congregational churches that are governed by congregational voting, the membership rolls are important but rarely well maintained. Indeed, as the reported case indicated, the church board’s first count was off by over three hundred which the church board attempted to remedy after the failed election. Attendance is usually the test of membership and attendance records are not well maintained. Attempting to track attendance at every worship service, year in and year out, requires a financial commitment to staff most churches are unwilling to make. Volunteers come and go, too. At best, attendance records during the month before a congregational vote might be sufficiently reliable from which to derive a membership roll. The other problem with congregational votes are super majority requirements. Inflated membership rolls make such votes less than representative.