The court decision reported below started with the summary, “a dying bishop, a simmering feud over his successor, and allegations of misappropriated assets provide the backdrop to this church property dispute.” Orderly succession, especially anticipating the unexpected passing of a founder, can only be achieved by adopting and following governance documents that provide a clear process. The “Insurrection of the Bubbas” on January 6, 2021 notwithstanding, succession has been a hallmark of the democracy since inception much to the surprise, and envy, of much of the world in different eras. Thus, it would seem succession at the local denominational or local church level should be easier to implement. Apparently, that is not always so.
In Early Church of God v Jackson, 2022-Ohio-4034 (Slip Op.) (Ohio App. 2022), the appellate court reversed the dismissal of the case by the trial court on two of the three theories for relief or recovery submitted by the Plaintiff. The theory upon which the trial court dismissal was affirmed was pled in “trespass.” The allegation was that the Defendants were trying to conduct an unauthorized ordination of one of the Defendants to be a successor bishop. The trial court held the alleged basis of the claim to be an ecclesiastical issue. The Plaintiffs claims for breach of fiduciary duty and demand for an accounting regarding church bank accounts and other property were held to be viable using Neutral Principles of Law. The appellate court held allegations of embezzlement or misappropriation are secular issues for which ecclesiastical claims need not be considered.
The ”trespass” claim should have been pled as a “trespassing” claim after the locks were changed and if defendants tried to use Plaintiff’s facilities without authorization regardless of the event contemplated. If the financial transactions complained of were unauthorized by the governing documents or the authorized leadership, then such claims can be proven. Once the denomination or church becomes aware of a problem, the banks and other property custodians should be notified so that access to the funds or property can be regulated.