Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas
IN RE FIRST CHRISTIAN METHODIST EVANGELISTIC CHURCH, Relator
Original Proceeding from the 134th Judicial District Court
Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. DC-18-11718
Justices Schenck, Partida-Kipness, and Reichek
L. REICHEK, JUSTICE
underlying proceeding involves a church's termination of
its senior pastor. In this original proceeding, relator First
Christian Methodist Evangelistic Church ("the
Church" or relator) seeks a writ of mandamus directing
the trial court to vacate its order denying the Church's
plea to the jurisdiction and to grant the plea and dismiss
the case. After reviewing the Church's petition, the real
party in interest's response, the Church's reply, and
the mandamus record, we conclude the Church is entitled to
the relief requested because the ecclesiastical abstention
doctrine applies as a matter of law to the facts of this case
and, as such, the trial court abused its discretion by
denying the plea to the jurisdiction.
August 2018, the Church terminated its Senior Pastor, John
Wilson III ("the Senior Pastor"). The Senior Pastor
filed suit against the Church and three church board members
for breach of contract and specific performance, alleging
that the Church terminated him without cause and failed to
pay him severance that he contends was required to be paid
under his employment contract.
Church and board members filed a plea to the jurisdiction.
They argued that the Senior Pastor was terminated pursuant to
church policies and procedures and was not entitled to
severance pay because the termination was based on a finding
of moral misconduct. The Church maintains that the Senior
Pastor's position is inherently religious, and that his
employment contract is subject to the laws and bylaws of the
Church, which the Church asserts are "codified" in
the Church's Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline
sets forth "the laws, plans, polity and processes by
which [the Church] governs itself and remains
consistent" and "reflects [the Church's]
understanding of the Church and expectations of its laity and
clergy . . . ." The Book of Discipline contains the
Church Bylaws. According to the Church, to interpret the
employment contract, the fact-finder must interpret the
Church's Book of Discipline and the Church Bylaws.
Further, the Church argues that the severance provisions of
the employment contract are conditioned upon whether the
Senior Pastor is terminated for moral misconduct. As such,
the determination of whether the Senior Pastor is entitled to
severance under the contract requires an analysis of the
Church's moral principles, which are set out in the
Church's Book of Discipline, and a review of how the
Church manages its internal affairs.
Church also argues that the trial court lacked jurisdiction
over the Senior Pastor's case because the decision to
terminate the Senior Pastor involved ecclesiastical matters
and concerns issues into which a trial court may not delve.
For example, pursuant to the laws of the Church, employment
decisions concerning the Senior Pastor are restricted to a
vote by the Church Conference. Only members in good standing
may vote to terminate in the Church Conference, and the
qualification of good standing is inherently religious
pursuant to criteria set in the Church's Book of
Discipline. Membership qualifications include being baptized
and promising to live a Christian life, to always remain
faithful members of Christ's holy Church, to be loyal to
the Church, and to uphold the Church "by their prayers,
their presence, their gifts, and their service."
According to the Church, any claims surrounding the Senior
Pastor's employment are "not purely secular"
and, therefore, the lawsuit must be dismissed pursuant to the
ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The Church presented
evidence that the Church Conference voted to terminate the
Senior Pastor's employment "consistent with the
internal policies and procedures of the Church."
Similarly, the Church argues that the question of severance
pay is a determination of a minister's salary and is also
an effort by the Senior Pastor to right an alleged wrong
related to the firing or administration of clergy, both of
which are meant to be decided outside of the secular court
system. Finally, the Church maintains that the ecclesiastical
abstention doctrine applies to this case because the
termination of the Senior Pastor involves the Church's
decisions in managing its affairs. The Church contends that
the plea to the jurisdiction should have been granted under
the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and the ministerial
contrast, the Senior Pastor maintains that the underlying
case is merely a contract dispute that can be decided under
neutral legal principles. He asserts that the only questions
to be answered are whether there was a valid employment
contract, the terms of that contract, and whether the Church
breached those terms by failing to pay him six months'
severance. Specifically, he argues that section 5.4 of his
employment contract required the Church to pay him six
months' severance if the Church terminated him
unilaterally without cause upon a vote of the Church
5.4 Unilateral Termination. The Pastor does hereby agree that
the Church Conference may unilaterally terminate this
Agreement, without cause, by a majority vote of K the church
member's congregation voting at Church Conference. Voting
members must be in good standing with the church; i.e.
actively Involved In the church as It relates to tithes and
offering as well as in attendance. In the event of a
unilateral termination by the Church Conference, the Church
Conference does hereby agree to pay the Pastor a six (6)
months' severance pay. The Church Conference does hereby
agree that the Pastor may unilaterally terminate this
Agreement provided he gives the Church Conference two
weeks' notice of his intention to terminate.
Senior Pastor maintains that the Church's August 14, 2018
termination letter established that his termination was a
unilateral termination made at the "will" of the
Church Conference and, as such, fell under section 5.4 as a
matter of contract law:
"Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ." (Matt.
August 14, 2018
Rev John VV. ...