Typically, church management employees consist of clergy and clerical staff. Some churches are large enough to employ other additional managers and staff. Generally, these positions are financial management positions, child day care managers and other types of positions. The church staff accountant, the child day care director, and the facility manager are usually not strictly ministerial. Nevertheless, they may have ministerial duties. Those duties may or may not keep them inside the frontiers of the Ministerial Exception to federal or state employment laws and leave the church immune.
In Congregation B’Nai Zion of El Paso, slip op. (Tex. Civ. App. 2022), the synagogue employed an “executive director” but terminated her three years later. The terminated executive director alleged she was not a minister. The church alleged her duties included ministerial matters. In order to resolve the factual conflict, the trial court held the plea to the jurisdiction of the court in abeyance and ordered discovery on the merits. The appellate court held a jurisdictional appellate ruling was premature because the trial court had not ruled on jurisdiction. Thus, the appellate court remanded the case to the trial court to permit limited discovery on the jurisdictional issue. Upon termination of the executive director, the church leadership issued a letter explaining the termination to the “voting members” but never mentioning the former employee by name. The terminated person alleged the letter was defamatory because the letter reported the implementation of a new financial audit requirement. The church alleged the letter was required to achieve financial transparency as required by governing documents.
We must await further rulings or developments regarding whether an “executive director” or “office manager” (as the former employee explained the duties of the position) is sufficiently ministerial to trigger the Ministerial Exception. Also, whether the report of events to the “voting membership” in a letter was defamatory has yet to be decided. The real lesson of the reported case is that interlocutory appellate review to extinguish expensive full-blown discovery in a case the court will likely hold is barred by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine or the Ministerial Exception must not be premature. There must be sufficient record, i.e., evidentiary materials, so that the court can easily see there are prohibited ecclesiastical inquiries required to decide the issues. The duties of an “executive director” or “office manager” typically will be sufficiently ministerial to trigger the Ministerial Exception because such an employee operates at the clergy level to operate the infrastructure of the church. Intertwined with church governance issues such an employee will be typically immersed in confidential ministerial decision making even if they are not leading worship services. Such an employee may decide which minister will lead at least on a given day.