Member Sues Church Over Big Love Offerings
By Raul Rivera
A man, who was dismissed from membership for causing division and strife over love offerings given to guest speakers, filed a lawsuit against the church and the pastor, claiming defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud. The claim dates back to 2007 when the church hired a new comptroller to review the church books. The comptroller became dissatisfied with his job and resigned his post, but in the process, he inappropriately took some private financial documents of the church and turned them over to the media, which in turn posted them on the Web for the entire world to see. The documents revealed that the church had a tradition of being very generous to their guest speakers and others who rendered services to the church. After becoming aware of what was happening, the pastor addressed the matter internally with church leadership and the congregation. It was resolved that the church's giving of offerings was based on a biblical conviction of being generous with those who served the church.
What a disgruntled member will do
Not too long afterwards, one of the church's most generous givers became concerned over some of the church's expenditures and addressed them to the pastor and several board members. At the meeting, it came to light that the finance committee had appropriately approved all of the spending that was in question, and some of those expenses had actually been personally reimbursed back to the church by the pastor. Nevertheless, this disgruntled member was dissatisfied with the outcome and decided to resign his membership from the church. Unfortunately, he also emailed members of the church about his concerns and the "alleged misuse of church resources." He also encouraged those members to leave the church and to "rise up against the pastor." This caused great distress in the church, and many church members were very upset. Furthermore, he contacted several of the church's employees and "urged them to leave the church" and to make public statements to the media about the alleged misuse of the church's money. He also offered to compensate certain employees who left the church.
A biblical approach with legal strategy
When this pastor was confronted with the issue mentioned here, his first course of action was an attempt to win back the one who had come at odds with the church. After several attempts to win him back, what he did next was something not usual in the church today. The pastor and board of directors took a two-pronged approach to resolve the situation.
1. They looked to Scripture: The pastor and the board of elders knew they were under severe attack from the disgruntled member and the media. They turned to Scripture to see what the Word of God said concerning matters like this. After finding answers in the Word, they took another step.
2. They took a legal strategy: Knowing that their decision would have a legal impact, the pastor and board of elders publicly addressed the disgruntled member's actions by bringing it before the church. The pastor, with the board of elders, drafted a written statement, which the pastor read from the pulpit. It is important to note that the statement they drafted was careful to point out that the reason they were bringing the matter before the church was purely ecclesiastical and not secular. I will outline below:
a. The church understood the rights it had under the Constitution: its right and obligation to impose church discipline based on biblical interpretation.
b. They relied on Romans 16:17 and told the congregation to "mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them."
c. They also relied upon I Timothy 5, which says to "rebuke before all, those that sin, that others might fear."
d. The way the church handed this situation was part of its governing documents and well documented.
e. Whether one agrees or not with the way the church handled this situation is beside the point. What this article is focusing on is how a church can deal with a member who violates the harmony of the church, even if dealing with it means practicing Matthew chapter 18 and publicly addressing that person's behavior.
Going to court
Naturally, the disgruntled member filed a lawsuit in court against the pastor and the church. What began as a dispute over love offerings, turned into a lawsuit claiming that the church committed fraud (because the love offerings were way too big) and character defamation (because the pastor and board spoke of the man before the church), causing the man great emotional harm and distress. As often will be the case, when a church member sues a church that has publicly removed him or her, he or she often claims the following:
1. Defamation: In short, defamation occurs when false information is communicated that harms the reputation of an individual. The church was careful not to make any statement or reveal any information that it could not well document as fact. Yet, the court observed that church governance is a constitutionally protected activity that "affords broad protection," even if a wrong is committed.
2. Emotional distress: The disgruntled member "alleged a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress . . ." and attempted to " . . . impose liability upon the Church." The church's response was that the court lacked jurisdiction "over the controversies in the lawsuit under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and asked that the case be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction." The court agreed and observed that it would require it to conduct an inquiry into the "truth or falsity of religious beliefs that is forbidden by the Constitution."
3. Fraud: The member claimed that the church committed fraud because the pastor and the church "made representations that they would use Church funds properly when funds were being 'misused' . . . " The court noted that "disputed financial expenditures" had been approved by the church's finance committee, "which, under the church's belief system, owes a responsibility to God." It also noted that there was adequate documentation to show a biblical basis to support the disputed financial expenditures.
Why your church's organizing documents REALLY matter
This case represents a classic example of a church that had well-documented policies for handling disruptive/divisive members. When one starts a church, he or she never ponders that it will fall under such extreme attacks as the one documented in this case. However, these are the realities of 21st century churches, and pastors and leaders need to be prepared for them. This church expounded on two things in its organizing documents that kept them free of civil trouble.
1. They had biblical documentation in their bylaws: The church had bylaws that paved the way to handle this matter based on its sincerely held beliefs as they interpreted in Scripture. These bylaws were also part of their public record when the church applied for its 501(c)(3) status. Your church's public records can serve as an excellent way to document to the whole world what your church believes and how it handles itself under a biblical government structure.
2. They had clearly written doctrines in place: The church had clear, written doctrines that dictated its rights and duties to care for the congregation. Many churches today do not have written doctrines that are detailed and clearly document 100% of what the church believes. Not only does it help the church to remain consistent in what it believes, it also can become the best 1st Amendment defense in court when it comes to outside intrusion or government interference. I explain this strategy in detail at all of our conferences.
Time and time again courts have stayed away from resolving church disputes when they involve matters of doctrine or church discipline. At our conferences, we teach every church to make matters of church discipline and financial responsibilities doctrinal by properly documenting them as part of the church's doctrines. This church did, and they are glad for it.