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05 Sep 2017

Why It's Important to Know What Your Bylaws Say, Part 1

Raul Rivera

Have you ever had to assemble something? Maybe it was a toy for your child on Christmas, or perhaps you have had to assemble furniture from IKEA. Whatever it may be that you had to assemble, you most likely did so using the provided instructions. 

Although you could have assembled the toy or furniture without instructions, it most likely would have taken you twice as long to complete. The instructions are there to guide you along the way and, hopefully, save you from a lot of unnecessary stress and aggravation. 

In a similar manner, your church bylaws provide guidance and instructions on how certain tasks should be completed (e.g. how board meetings should be scheduled). 

There is, however, a vast difference in not following your church bylaws and not following the instructions to your TV stand from IKEA. 

Too bad IKEA doesn't do bylaws

The real issue for many pastors and church leaders is that they simply do not know what their bylaws say. Maybe at one time they did, but several years have gone by and they are not even sure where their bylaws are located at the moment.

Other pastors may come on staff to an already existing church. During the hiring process, they were handed a packet of information that included the “current” church bylaws. The problem is that many of these pastors have not read through the bylaws. 

I cannot stress enough that it is important for you to know and understand exactly what your church bylaws say. 

To help make my point, I am going to share the story of a pastor who called a church meeting to confess a sin before his congregation. Although most of his congregation forgave him and wanted him to remain their pastor, the meeting he called did not follow what was prescribed in the bylaws and what ended up happening may surprise you. 

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Why it is important to abide by your church bylaws

Pastor Anderson, senior pastor of West End Church of Christ, called a church meeting to confess that he took church money to pay for the expenses of his sick mother. The meeting was held the same day he called each member.

Once he confessed, Pastor Anderson asked those in attendance whether or not they wanted him to remain as pastor. The church had 16 members. Of the 10 members that attended the meeting, 8 members agreed to forgive Pastor Anderson and to keep him as their pastor. 

However, there was one member in attendance who disagreed with the outcome. The member objected to Pastor Anderson continuing as pastor. The member also claimed the meeting was held without proper notice. 

Pastor Anderson decided a second meeting should be held the next evening since everyone was unable to attend the initial meeting. 

The following evening, the members again agreed that Pastor Anderson should remain pastor of the church. At this point, Pastor Anderson believed any issues related to his misappropriation of money was settled through the two meetings.

Yet three days later, upon arrival at the church, Pastor Anderson received a termination letter. 

Things start to get ugly between the pastor and board members

An important lesson about church bylaws can be learned from Pastor Anderson’s legal case in Anderson v. Truelove*. Pastor Anderson sued the two board members who signed their names to the termination letter, claiming they had changed the church’s locks and unlawfully excluded him from the church.

Pastor Anderson petitioned the court for a judgment stating his termination was void and that he and two other church members constituted the board of directors. 

In the end, the trial court determined that the two meetings called by Pastor Anderson did not comply with the church bylaws’ notice requirement. It also determined that a special meeting complying with the church bylaws’ notice should be held.

Pastor Anderson appealed.

How the appeals court ruled

In its ruling, a state appeals court noted that under the First Amendment the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prohibits civil courts from “delving into matters focused on theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of a church to the standard of morals required of them.”

Furthermore, the appeals court noted the church bylaws contain provisions requiring 7 days notice be given at a regular worship service, in a bulletin, or within 3 days personally or by phone for special meetings of members. 

Pastor Anderson did not follow this regulation for either meeting he called.

The appeals court noted that “no provision in the bylaws governs the basis for, or manner, in which a minister may be terminated.” Based on the church bylaws, Pastor Anderson had no basis for his arguments. 

In the end, the appeals court dismissed the case due to absence of authority to make a formal judgment involving such ecclesiastical matters under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

At StartCHURCH, our goal is to provide pastors with knowledge and strategies that empower and protect them during tough times. Keep reading and I will provide you with some strategies you can begin implementing today.

Bylaws are the most important document in your church

From West End Church of Christ, we see how messy a situation can get when bylaws are not followed.

It is instances like this that continually compel us to help pastors in establishing a solid legal foundation for their churches and ministries. When you go through our StartRIGHT® Program you can include strategic language in your bylaws that specifically addresses issues like the one presented. 

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog. I will provide four strategies to consider implementing in your church bylaws and church practices. In the meantime, if you have questions about your bylaws, please give our office a call at 877-494-4655. We would love to help you!

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

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* Sources:

  • Anderson v. Truelove, 446 S.W.3d 87 (Tex. App. 2014)

Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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About the Author

Church Planter. Speaker. Author. CEO. Raul Rivera has had ample experience in the church planting world. His current venture, StartCHURCH, has helped 1000's of churches to start right. Raul has compiled an array of manuals and software tools that help churches stay compliant with the IRS. He also hosts over 35 national conferences per year, training pastors on how to launch their churches. Raul is married to his wife Genel, and they and their five children live in Atlanta, GA.