Churches are typically volunteer organizations with a few paid leaders and usually a greater number of unpaid leaders. Over the years or decades, as people come and go from these positions, without accurate records, identification of the correct and complete version of the governing document in force might become problematic. It can be a crucial question.
In Nation Ford Baptist Church, Inc. v Davis, 2022-NCSC-98 (NC 2022), the trial court and intermediate court of appeals denied the motion to dismiss of the church based on church autonomy grounds and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The pastor was terminated by the church board. The pastor alleged the correct version of the bylaws required a congregational vote and did not authorize the board to act unilaterally. The church alleged that the correct version in effect did give the board unilateral authority to terminate the pastor. The church also alleged the letter agreement employing the pastor expressly stated the employment was “at will.” The pastor alleged the correct version of the bylaws was submitted by the church as an attachment to a bank loan application. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court and intermediate appellate court’s denial of the motion to dismiss by the church as to some theories and not as to others. The search for the correct version of bylaws was held to be an issue that could be resolved applying Neutral Principles of Law. The demand for reinstatement, however, could not be. The effect of the letter agreement was left to the trial court to determine, if it could be, using Neutral Principles of Law.
Churches that periodically, annually or bi-annually, confirm the version of the governing document in effect in their official meeting minutes avoid the scenario in the reported case. Prior versions should in official meeting minutes be officially disavowed as in effect. In the reported case, the Supreme Court noted the allegation that the congregation dwindled in size under the former pastor by 60%.