Ignore the Constitution at great peril
An Indiana church was founded by a pastor, and then the pastor’s son eventually became co-pastor. The church so appreciated the two that they wrote into an employment agreement that they would continue to pay them salaries after retirement, as a form of pension. Then, they further solidified that agreement by writing an even more generous pension agreement into the bylaws of the church.
The pastors fell out of grace—the son by having a questionable relationship with a female parishioner and then divorcing his wife, the father by coming out of retirement to start another church close-by, taking most of the staff and leadership and about half of the members of the original church. Badly crippled and disgusted with their former pastors, the first church quit paying their pensions.
Father and son had the audacity to bring suit, saying that they still ought to have the monthly salary from the first church as pensions due to them according to the bylaws of the church. The church, struggling financially by the church split, didn’t have the $17,000 per month to give to the fallen pastors no longer serving the church.
What happened in court? Because the pension agreement had been written into the bylaws of the church, the court ruled that the church owed $732,000 back pension payments to the pastors, plus $17,000 a month for the rest of the pastors’ lives! Obviously, this illustrates that it is a bad idea not to follow the church’s constitution. (See Calvary Temple Church v. Paino, 827 N.E.2d 125 (Ind. App. 2005).)
Why am I telling you this church horror story that should send you to take a good look at your congregation’s constitution and bylaws? Because the courts take very seriously what is written in a nonprofit corporation’s governing documents—for Presbyterians, our Book of Order.
Attorney and CPA Richard Hammar is the author of Pastor, Church & Law, considered the “bible” of church legal advice, and is senior editor of Church Law and Tax Report. He is hailed by many as the nation’s top authority on church legal matters. Commenting on this case in Church Law and Tax Report, Hammer noted this relationship between church documents:
A charter is the state-approved articles of incorporation of an incorporated church. Most rules of internal church administration are contained in a constitution or bylaws. Specific and temporary matters often are addressed in resolutions. If a conflict develops among these documents, the order of priority generally is as follows—charter, constitution, bylaws, and resolutions.
Okay, so what am I getting at?
The recommendations in the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church contain Recommendation #5. This recommendation would fall under the term “resolution” in the hierarchy Hammar describes above. An Authoritative Interpretation is not part of the charter, constitution, or bylaws of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is a resolution passed by a single General Assembly—the document with the least weight.
Recommendation #5, if approved, would thoroughly nullify the force of the Constitution, turning the “shall not” language of the Constitution into a relative “shall not unless local ordaining bodies would rather do otherwise.” (See a series of articles by attorney and elder William A. Bradford, where this case is made quite thoroughly.)
Okay, if a resolution such as Recommendation #5 is found to contradict the Book of Order, guess which document secular courts would hold up as authoritative—the Constitution or the Authoritative Interpretation? The secular courts would say that as a matter of law, the Constitution would have precedence.
The church in Indiana found that out the hard way. They’d made a resolution that the church was trying to argue was operative. The court said, in effect, “Not so fast! Your constitution is what counts.” Wouldn’t the PCUSA be making the same mistake as the Indiana church, if it were to ignore the plain meaning of its Constitution and follow willy nilly the contradictory wording of the proposed new Authoritative Interpretation?
A church ignores or contradicts its constitution at great peril. Ask the church in Indiana how it will come up with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars for its erring pastors. We Presbyterians dare not break our Constitution in a fumble-fingered attempt to adjust it. Commissioners to General Assembly must not approve Recommendation #5 from the Theological Task Force.