The widow of a deceased pastor will not be able to keep on receiving a monthly stipend from her husband’s former church because the church board that made the decision to continue the payments lacked the authority to do so, the South Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled.
Edward Jenkins founded the Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ in Columbia and pastored it from 1997 until his death in 2004. Before his death, he held a special board meeting in which he and two church board members decided that, in the event of his death, the church would continue paying his wife, Delories, his monthly salary and housing allowance. The board was made up of members appointed by Edward.
After Edward died, the church initially made the payments in accordance with the policy. But in 2010, it told Delories that the church could no longer afford them, and that the payments had been to help during the time after Edward’s death. No mention of the contract was made.
The payments soon stopped, and Jenkins sued the church. Richland County Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning granted judgment to Jenkins, finding the agreement to be a valid and enforceable contract.
On July 25, the Court of Appeals unanimously overruled the decision, finding that the board that executed the agreement lacked proper authority, and that the agreement was tainted by conflict of interest.
Justice Paul Short, writing for the court, said that because the church is a hierarchical religious organization, the court had to rely on the orders of its highest religious judicatories. It thus turned to the official manual of the Church of God in Christ, which said that when “no particular mode of election of [directors] is established or required by law, then the [directors] shall be elected by a majority of the members of the congregation.”
Because the board members were appointed, the court found that they were not qualified to create the contract allowing Jenkins to be paid after her husband’s death.
The Court of Appeals also rejected Jenkins’ argument that because the church paid the money as the contract dictated, regardless of whether it was valid, the church had chosen to ignore its legal rights, thus giving them up. Short said that the church made the payments in accordance with larger church doctrine rather than knowingly complying with the contract, and that it wasn’t clear whether the new pastor at the church even knew about the promise.
Tim Newton and Peter Farr of Murphy & Grantland in Columbia represented the church.
“The opinion noted that payments were being paid from denominational courtesy during a transitional time,” Farr said. “It was more of an opportunity to take care of the pastor’s family for a limited time.”
Allyson Stuart, a contract law professor at the Charleston School of Law, said that while the contract that the board agreed to is bizarre and she didn’t disagree with the court’s decision, she was perplexed by its justification for why the contract was invalid.
“The way they found that was very strange to me,” Stuart said. “The church’s bylaws don’t say [the board members] have to be elected, so that allows them to be appointed … There’s nothing in South Carolina law that says that isn’t proper.”
However, she said that she does take issue, as the court might have, with the obvious conflict of interest created by the pastor picking officials and voting to use church funds to pay his wife. “The court didn’t decide based on the conflict of interest, but that sounds like that was their problem,” she said.
Stuart said that the case clarifies that the court has jurisdiction in church matters relating to civil contracts.
“If there is a dispute arising out of basic contractual principles, the court will have jurisdiction,” Stuart said.
Kenneth Hanson and Walter Riggs of Hanson Law Firm in Columbia, who represented Jenkins, could not be reached for comment.
The 11-page decision is Jenkins v. Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-068-18). An opinion digest is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
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