Planting a church? Get the #1 Church Plant software

Court Removes Church Board for Not Having Rules

By Raul Rivera

The true names in this story are concealed. Imagine for a moment having to go to court to defend your position as the rightful pastor of the church and the church board of directors as the rightful directors. Now imagine that the result of the lawsuit was the entire board being removed and a court-appointed receiver taking over until a new meeting could be conducted by the receiver to appoint a new board of directors. This exact scenario unfolded at a church in New York, which we will call Church XYZ. Three things came to light at trial:1

  1. The church did not have bylaws that outlined a procedure for adding and removing board members.
  2. They did not properly call a church business meeting nor keep proper minutes.
  3. The church did not follow the procedures outlined in the church's certificate of incorporation.

Running a Church is More Than Good Preaching and Teaching

In every church today, regardless of its governance structure, there are two facets: the spiritual and the corporate/business. At times, these two aspects collide in ways they were not designed to handle. In the many years I have been involved in ministry, I have observed that situations like these can be avoided by properly establishing and managing the business side of the church. The kingdom of God is composed of people, and my consistent observation is that where there are people, challenges inevitably arise.

Back Story of Church XYZ in New York

In the late sixties, pastor A and her daughter founded the church. Worship services and prayer meetings were initially held in the Pastor's residence. Subsequently, a permanent location was secured, establishing a dedicated storefront worship space in Brooklyn, New York. The Pastor’s family undertook significant efforts to renovate their facility to meet the needs of a house of worship.

Fifteen years later, the Church expanded its presence by acquiring the adjacent property, which remains its current worship location. A year after the church was founded, the church was formally incorporated under Article 10 of the Religious Corporations Law of New York. The incorporation documents designate six church members as trustees, requiring annual elections. The church never held an election.

Pastor A’s daughter had been an integral part of the church's operations since its incorporation, undertaking various roles, including trustee, secretary, vice-president, and assistant pastor, except for four years when she resided out of state. Despite the certificate of incorporation mandating annual trustee elections, the church primarily functioned as a family-operated entity, with most members and trustees being relatives or close associates of Pastor A and her daughter. As a result of not having bylaws, formal elections were not held, and positions, including trusteeships, were appointed directly by the Pastor.

Not Having Bylaws or Procedures Was Exploited

The adage "the devil is in the details" resonates with literal truth; we must remain vigilant regarding the devil's schemes. Should a vulnerability exist, he will undoubtedly discover and exploit it (2 Corinthians 2:11). Unfortunately, for the church, not having bylaws or governing documents that outlined how the board of trustees would be appointed was costly.

The controversy in her church arose shortly after her mother, Pastor A, died in 2000, and she assumed church leadership. Several members who had been a part of the church since its start in 1967 objected and notified the church’s district council, the Northeast District Assembly, which essentially attempted to take over the church. The district council assumed that because the board was not properly elected, the founding board of trustees was not legitimate and that the pastor’s daughter was not the rightful pastor. This dispute ended up in court.

State Laws Provide for Churches to Govern Themselves

Numerous states have enacted statutes stipulating the standard procedures for governing church operations. Many of those laws provide that should a church choose to establish its own governance protocols, it may do so by adding such provisions into its articles of incorporation or bylaws, thereby customizing its management processes in accordance with its beliefs and doctrinal views and not the standard prescxriptions of state laws.

For example, the state of Georgia's Nonprofit Corporation Law states that “If religious doctrine governing the affairs of a corporation is inconsistent with the provisions of this chapter on the same subject, the religious doctrine shall control to the extent required by the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of this state or both” (GA Code § 14-3-180 (2022)). Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled that a law mandating how a church should govern itself cannot force a church into compliance if it is “inconsistent with the Church's fundamental religious freedom . . . to determine its own governmental rules and regulations” (First Born Church of Living God, Inc. v. Hill, 267 Ga. 633, Ga. 1997).

The Court’s Ruling

Ultimately, the court ruled that the district had no right to remove the pastor’s daughter. Still, it also decided that the board of trustees was not, in fact, the board of trustees and ordered that a receiver be appointed to determine the individuals who were members in good standing of Church XYZ based on the church's attendance roll book, customs, and traditions, and thereby those eligible to vote in the church elections for trustees. The receiver had to oversee the church vote for trustees, establish the rules and regulations for the campaign process, and ensure that proper notice of the elections was given to the congregation under sections 194 through 199 of the Religious Corporations Law and the election procedures.


StartRIGHT: The Way to Avoid Legal Pitfalls

This case stresses the importance of starting your church on a solid legal foundation. Anyone can incorporate a church, but it takes real planning and strategizing to ensure it is done correctly. As America’s leader, our StartRIGHT program has been trusted by tens of thousands of churches over the last 24 years. Should you have any inquiries, please feel free to contact us at 770-638-3444.


1. The details shared in this blog are thoughtfully gathered from public court case records, which are open to anyone for reference (ST. MATTHEW CHURCH v. Creech, 196 Misc. 2d 843, (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2003)).

Did you find this blog helpful?

And receive Book 1 of our Grow Trilogy FREE today! This series gives you the strategies you need to get started growing your church plant today!