By Whitman H. Brisky
What happens to church property when most of its members depart, leaving only an unpopular pastor and a few of his close friends and family to determine its use? Unfortunately, in all too many cases, the congregation essentially shuts down as an active ministry, converts the property to cash, and then pays the remaining funds to (or for the benefit of) the pastor. Frequently the money is paid out as salary for doing very little since the congregation is now defunct. Even worse, in some situations we have seen, the pastor seems to deliberately drive the bulk of the congregation away so that he can sell the property for his own personal benefit without having to account for the money.
We are even aware of an example where a single minister became pastor of three separate congregations and drove the members of all three away leaving him with the property. While this situation would normally not occur in denominations with relatively strong connections because the denomination would step in, it is all too common among independent congregations and in denominations with much looser structures.
Whether the pastor is truly a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, intentionally driving most of his congregation away so that he can profit personally from the sale of the property, or simply a poor pastor, the result is the same: the destruction of a congregation, the sale of church property often for secular use, and the waste of assets which should be used to build the Kingdom.
What can Christian lay people do to avoid this kind of situation in their own congregations? First, build strong, independent lay leadership for the congregation and resist attempts by the pastor to “pack” the board with his own supporters. This will ensure that there is a strong independent board to check the pastor, offer guidance if he seems to be taking a wrong path, and if necessary, initiate the pastor’s removal.
The second way congregations can help prevent this kind of situation is to exercise great care in selecting a pastor. This should include a careful check of his background and prior employment. Frequently these wolves in shepherd’s clothing move from church to church, repeating the process multiple times. A call committee should be very reluctant to hire a candidate who has left his prior church worse off than when he arrived. It would be wise to talk to some people who left the candidate’s prior church to find out why they left.
Third, the church’s bylaws should be reviewed and updated to ensure that a pastor, with or without a compliant board, could not use parliamentary tricks and super majority requirements to prevent the majority of a congregation from supervising or removing an unpopular or incompetent pastor. The bylaws should not allow a pastor to unilaterally remove anyone from membership or limit a member’s voting power.
Fourth, there should be a written contract with each pastor not only detailing the compensation and other benefits he will receive, but also specifying what he is expected to do and the conditions under which he can be terminated. This ensures that a civil court can and will enforce decisions which are consistent with that contract.
And lastly, make sure that the church treasurer, and other people charged with handling the money of the church, are independent of the pastor and that their work is independently reviewed (preferably by a third party accountant) to ensure that financial transactions are properly recorded.
Taking these common sense steps will not only help avoid the wolf in shepherd’s clothing, but also strengthen the church congregation generally—particularly its lay leadership, which can also lead to more effective evangelism and ministry. Even if you already have a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, it might not be too late. You should contact an attorney experienced in handling these matters before you walk away from a congregation.
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Whitman H. Brisky is a partner with the Chicago-based law firm of Mauck & Baker, which handles cases involving churches and religious liberty. He has practiced law in Illinois since 1975, after graduating from the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. He frequently represents churches and pastors, and is an ally with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). According to his company biography, Brisky was brought to the Lord after wandering into a Presbyterian church where the pastor preached a sermon entitled “Has Anyone Been Saved Here Lately?” At the end of the service Brisky could respond enthusiastically, “Yes, me!”