While a church or denomination may have officers, directors, trustees, or similar leaders with ecclesiastical titles from the tradition of the denomination, generally no single officer can act for or bind the church or denomination without an enabling resolution of the governing body or authority granted by the governing documents. Likewise, just because such an officer is a named party in a lawsuit or arbitration does not mean that the church or denomination is bound by the outcome.
In Trustees of the General Assembly v Patterson, Slip Op. (3rd Cir. 2021), upon the death of the founder, the denomination split between his sons. Patterson went with one son to form a new church. Both sons claimed to be the “General Overseer” of the denomination. Patterson sued the son he had not followed and a board member of the Trustees. Patterson, the son and the board member decided to dismiss the lawsuit in favor of arbitration. An arbitration award was entered for Patterson. Patterson sought to have the arbitration award enforced against the denomination as to certain church property and assets. The federal trial court enjoined Patterson’s enforcement action and held the denomination was not a named party to the arbitration and was not bound by it even though a possible “General Overseer” and a single board member had been named. Further, the denomination had never been served with process. The federal court also determined that the denomination was not a “party in privity” with the alleged “General Overseer or named board member because the denomination did not agree to be bound by the arbitration, did have control of the litigation, and the legal relationship between those named and the denomination did not automatically make them representative of the denomination. The federal appellate court affirmed.
In church litigation, just like all other cases, the correct party must be named and served. If a church or denomination is incorporated, likely a service agent was appointed, so the correct service agent must also be served. Proceeding through a litigated matter like an arbitration without the correct party is a colossal waste of money. Lawyers must be cautious about merely following client advice about the nature of the legal relationship between the person named and the denomination or church to be bound and should independently verify the relationship will result in a binding outcome.