The Ministerial Exception generally precludes secular court review of employment decisions. The label itself arose from the short hand name affixed to such an exception found in some federal employment discrimination statutes. More loosely used in its First Amendment context, the doctrine generally puts hiring and firing decisions regarding pastors out of the reach of litigation. But, the Ministerial Exception rarely prohibits litigation regarding employment and benefit contract rights.
In Flakes v New Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church, Slip Op. (Mich. App. 2019), the decision of the trial court granting summary judgment to the church was reversed. While the case originated as a lawsuit seeking reinstatement to the pulpit, the Plaintiff realized that was not legally available, abandoned reinstatement, and asserted only a salary dispute. The trial court, for whatever reasons, did not differentiate between reinstatement and a salary dispute and dismissed the case. The appellate court, however, reversed so that the trial court could reconsider whether the salary dispute, a creature of contract, could be determined without inquiring in ecclesiastical considerations. While that outcome seemed to be obvious from the short opinion, the more interesting question was remanded to the trial court. It was alleged by the church that the pastor was engaged pursuant to a written independent contractor agreement. The minister alleged that a year later a congregational vote called him as a pastor and he served in the position until the congregation terminated him seven years later.
Whether the action of the congregation to call the pastor a year after the original engagement pursuant to an independent contractor agreement in fact imposed a new contract will be an interesting dispute. Apparently, a new employment contract was not entered into after the call of the congregation. The independent contractor agreement was silent, apparently, on whether a subsequent congregational vote had any impact. The church governing documents, such as bylaws, may resolve or further complicate the dispute. The argument that the independent contractor agreement could only be amended in writing may have been fulfilled if the congregational vote calling the pastor was memorialized in governing board minutes or a church bulletin.
The author was acquainted with the presiding bishop of an evangelical denomination that carried in his brief case a journal from the turn of the century, the 19th to the 20th, that recorded the giving of those local church members a century earlier. The giving amounts, consistent with the economy of a century ago, were recorded in nickels and dimes. The bishop carried it with him to remind him of the legacy with which he was charged.
Most courts in the United States will not act as appellate courts over ecclesiastical courts or denominational bureaucratic regulatory authorities. When local congregations attempt to detach from the denominational authority they are usually unsuccessful or must depart without their real estate and buildings. While some view this as unfair, most such churches attempting to depart with their property were founded using the denominational brand, organizational support such as the bible college that trained their pastor, and sometimes direct financial support until they are strong enough to cut the umbilical cord.
In Presbytery of Seattle v Schulz, Slip Op. (Wash App. 2019), in a one or more prior appeals the local congregation’s attempt to disengage from the denomination was unsuccessful because it was not authorized by the ecclesiastical authority. The local church was founded at the beginning of the 20th century. The local church also tried to provide a severance agreement to the pastor that led their unsuccessful departure. The denomination revoked the severance contract, seized the local churches accounts and stopped all payroll to the pastor. The denomination’s “administrative commission” determined the severance agreement was invalid because it “constituted a change in the terms of call” for the pastor. The denomination also concluded the pastor’s conduct constituted a form of job abandonment but described it in religious terms: “renounced jurisdiction;” “standards of pastoral conduct.” The trial court held in favor of the denomination and the appellate court affirmed.
The denominational and local church governing documents were, as always, decisive in the reported case. Arguments to recharacterize the documents, especially with the history of litigation across the United States these have, were not successful. While employment contracts will generally be subject to judicial enforcement, not so when the employment contract clearly was not authorized by denominational, and possibly, local church governing documents.