The first available reported decision of 2023 started with a church split that spilled into the street. In most instances, the faction that is, in fact, attempting to usurp the denominational authority or the property ownership generally will not succeed. In most instances, if the fight has arisen because a clergyman has fallen out of favor with one of the factions, the clergyman’s employment by the church will only continue if the clergyman is not dependent upon the usurpers.
In Olsen v Roper, Slip Op., 2023 Ark App 35, the parties entered into a “standstill agreement” memorialized by an order of the trial court. The day after the agreement was entered and the court order issued, one faction sought to transfer all church assets to a new church corporation not affiliated with the denomination and changed the locks on the doors. The trial court enjoined the attempt to transfer church assets to the new church corporation. While the case was pending, the denominational authority revoked the pastor’s credentials and restored the control of the church to the faction opposing the faction supporting the former pastor. After the denomination’s actions, the trial court dismissed the remainder of the case on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds. The losing faction appealed the dismissal. The Arkansas appellate court affirmed the decision of the trial court to dismiss the case as to church governance issues. The appellate court did not affirm the dismissal of the claims leading to the temporary injunction, holding that a court does have jurisdiction to maintain the assets of the church until resolution of the claims either by the denomination or by the court.
The factual source of the church split was not reported by the appellate court in the reported case. Indeed, rarely are the hurt feelings or even legitimate grievances aired in such opinions. That seemingly general norm of court opinions upon which we have reported may teach us that the dispute to outsiders, whatever its subject may be, is incomprehensible or simply irrelevant. In any event, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine takes courts out of the role of mediator, referee or arbiter as to the underlying causes of the church split. The denomination, when there is one involved, is the only likely candidate for those roles. Congregational churches without binding denominational ties are on their own.