History taught us about the folly of wars that lasted decades; The Hundred Years War is an example heard at least passing mention of in some long ago school room. In these reports we have included cases arising from disputes caused by the failure of church founders or long time senior pastors to have succession plans. The resulting battle for control of church assets is always unseemly and inconsistent with the departed leader’s vision. Worse, these types of disputes often involve surviving family members that believe they inherited an entitlement to assets but no corresponding duty to develop the skill sets needed to lead. The problem is worse at the denominational level.
In Trustees of the General Assembly, etc. v Patterson, Memorandum [Opinion] (ED Pa., 2021), the federal district court recited the “almost thirty-year dispute in state court that resulted from the lack of succession planning. The church consisted of 50 satellite churches in the United States, 6,000 members of which 3,000 member were resident in Philadelphia. The church founder was the “bishop” and held a lifetime appointment. The first successor likewise held a lifetime appointment. The “bishop” had unilateral authority over membership rolls. The first successor had seven sons and a daughter, some of whom became clergy or trustees. The battle over succession “created a schism in the church.” Two factions formed around competing family members. The majority faction “disfellowshipped” the minority faction. Each faction claimed they had elected the next “bishop.” Lawsuits followed that were decided in various courts and forums, including mandatory arbitration. The arbitration award was set aside by a state court and then later by that state court held to be a final adjudication. Based on that ruling, the minority faction sought to evict the majority faction from the main church building and the leader of the minority was faction was declared to be the “receiver” of all church assets. However, the leader of the majority faction was left in office as “bishop,” and would also ostensibly have control. Thus, the federal court held it was not possible to determine who had control of the church assets based on the arbitration award and enjoined the eviction. It took the federal court 84 pages and 61 footnotes to navigate the litigation history and reach a conclusion. The federal court left the factions where they were at the end of the arbitration.
The amazing thing to gain from this report and this court’s opinion was that the membership tolerated this and financed it through a generation and a half of members. Another amazing thing is that an arbitrator would enter a decision guaranteed to perpetuate the schism by dividing the authority between the factions. The last amazing thing is that the state judiciary did not make definitive rulings based on the governing documents in the first instance or based on the arbitration award in the second. The receivership should have been quickly administered and wound up with no delay accepted. There were either financial irregularities or there were not.