CONGREGATIONAL SOVERIGNTY

In hierarchical and denominational churches, the ability to ascertain what final decisions have been made (or not made) is generally greater than in independent congregational churches.  That is because in independent congregational churches, every document of decisions made, or not made, must come from the local church.  Local churches that are not very good at keeping a record of their congregational votes, membership rolls, or board agendas and minutes, or have no organizational documents, may endure factional strife, hurt feelings in abundance, or even fission.

In McKnight v Wakefield Missionary Baptist Church, Inc., 2022 NCBC 10, Slip Op. (Supp NC 2022), an independent congregational church fell into a factional dispute that spilled out into the street and a North Carolina trial court.  The church was originally organized as an association and had a “constitution” and “bylaws.”  The Plaintiffs were two “trustees” that sued eight other “trustees.”  It all seemed to start at a congregational meeting to decide who should be the signatories to the church bank account(s).  Why this was not being decided by the trustees was not explained, but was probably required by the organizational documents of the association.  The congregation “elected” three signatories.  But, the eight trustees objected to irregularities in the congregational vote and rejected the appointment of the new signatories.  The bank would not allow itself to become the referee, froze the church accounts and filed an interpleader action asking a court to determine who controlled the church accounts.  The eight trustees also fired the pastor, who seemingly sided with the other faction, and locked the building pending release of the church funds in the interpleader action.  One faction conducted off site worship services.  The eight trustees incorporated the church and conducted another congregational vote that ratified all of their actions.  The eight trustees reopened the church building.  The trial court applied the Neutral Principles of Law to determine “who constitutes the governing body of this particular church and who has that governing body determined to be entitled to use the properties.”  The trial held the eight trustees were confirmed in their actions by the congregational vote they conducted after incorporation under the newly adopted Constitution and Bylaws.  The trial court held the eight trustees had a credible membership roll that indicated the voters entitled to vote at the congregational meeting.  The court refused to look behind the congregational vote ratifying the actions of the eight trustees because to do so would intrude on church governance in violation of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The trial court held no jury had greater authority to inquire into the congregational vote.  The trial court enjoined the Plaintiffs from using the church name in fund raising or a new congregation because the name of the church belonged to the entity and not the membership.  The ratification of incorporation placed the ownership of the church name, previously owned by the association, in the church corporation.

While an appeal might cause the reported rulings to be revised or reversed, the ability of the eight trustees to prove up a valid membership roll, and a ratifying congregational vote by such identified members, was determinative.  Ratification of incorporation and the other actions of the trustees was sufficiently well documented to convince the Court that church governance by the congregation of a congregational church occurred ending the dispute.  The lessons are clear and have been repeated in prior reports.  A well-documented membership roll, annually accepted by the congregation or an authorized governing board is crucial.  Clear governing documents are the next important.  Maintenance of both by meeting minutes, congregational and governing board, completes the proof.

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