LOCAL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP ROLLS

As we have reported several times, after maintaining the governing documents themselves, maintaining valid membership lists at least annually is about survival.  The local church that does not do both courts expensive legal repairs or a raid on assets.  Membership rolls should annually be made a part of the minutes of the church governing board.  Membership rolls kept in digital formats should at least annually be hard copy printed, or saved to media separate from the computer on which it is routinely hosted, and either or both attached to the minutes of the governing board.

In Cohen v Berliner, Unpublished Opinion (NY Supp Kings County 2021), the trial court held that the two hundred signatures submitted by the petitioner were not the valid ten signatures needed to demand a congregational meeting or vote.  However, the court conducted evidentiary hearings in which thirteen witnesses were tendered for testimony.  The local church owned a church camp primarily used in the summer.  The local church also leased the church camp to a parachurch organization for a girl’s summer camp.  Other local churches in the same denomination contributed money to the parachurch organization that operated the girl’s summer camp and that entity in turn leased the camp from the local church.  At some point, a falling out resulted and the churches supporting the para-church organization sought control over the summer camp.  The local church refused to surrender control.  The churches supporting the para-church organization submitted a petition for a congregational meeting by the local church supported by two hundred signatures from members of those churches, but none of which were members of the local church that actually owned the camp.  The petitioner sued to obtain a court order for the congregational meeting but the court upon holding extensive evidentiary hearings determined none of the two hundred signatories were members of the local church that owned the camp, but rather were members of the other churches.  The court rejected the claim that membership in the denomination was the same as membership in the local church absent such language in the governing documents.  The lease payments made by the parachurch organization did not constitute financial support of the local church that owned the camp, even if the lease payments were substantial.

Because the local church did not appear to have an official membership roll, each witness tendered had a shot at qualifying.  The court in the case reported may have given the petitioner as many as thirteen tries.  An official membership roll would have reduced the number of tries to one; only signatories also on the official membership roll could have been considered as “qualified” to call a congregational meeting.  A joint denominational asset like a church camp should be placed in a corporate shell controlled by the member congregations or the denomination and not owned by one of the constituent churches of the denomination.  Otherwise, no one but the owner of the denominational asset will have any say over its management, operation, sale or use as collateral.

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