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Stewart v. McCray

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 11, 2019

McNeal Stewart, Michael A. Carpenter, and Sheneen Haley, [1] Appellants-Defendants,
v.
Stan R. McCray and Canaan Baptist Church of Elkhart, Indiana, Inc., Appellees-Plaintiffs.

          Appeal from the Elkhart Superior Court The Honorable Stephen R. Bowers, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 20D02-1804-PL-65

          Appellants Pro Se McNeal Stewart Elkhart, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellees Patricia A. Mastagh South Bend, Indiana

          FRIEDLANDER, SENIOR JUDGE.

         [¶1] This matter stems from a years-long dispute between certain members of the congregation of the Canaan Baptist Church, in Elkhart, Indiana (the "Church"), and its pastor, Reverend McNeal Stewart, III ("Rev. Stewart"), involving allegations that Rev. Stewart usurped the authority of the Church's board of directors and disregarded the constitution and bylaws of the Church. The parties to the dispute participated in two separate actions that were filed in the Elkhart Superior Court in July 2016 (Cause No. 20D02-1607-CT-149), and in April 2018 (Cause No. 20D02-1804-PL-65). The first action involved a battle for control of the Church's finances and property as well as an attempt to terminate Rev. Stewart from his position as pastor of the Church. The instant appeal, however, is from the second action, at the conclusion of which the trial court determined that Rev. Stewart was in contempt of court and ordered him to serve a thirty-day sentence in the Elkhart County Jail.

         [¶2] Rev. Stewart appeals, presenting several issues for our review, one of which we find dispositive, that is, whether the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over the second action. Concluding that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the matter, we reverse and remand with instructions.

         [¶3] We present the facts of this case. By way of background, and to aid the reader in understanding the dispute within the Church, we begin with a brief description of the Church and then set forth in some detail the Church's governance, according to its constitution and bylaws.

         [¶4] The Church is a Missionary Baptist Church that is incorporated as an Indiana not-for-profit corporation. The Church follows a congregational mode of governance, i.e., "a form of Protestant church government in which each local church acts as an independent, self-governing body[.]" Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/ congregational?s=t (last visited on Oct. 22, 2019). The Church has adopted, and loosely adheres to, a constitution and bylaws (hereinafter, "Bylaws"). The preamble to the Bylaws states that "[w]e, the Members of Canaan Baptist Church of Elkhart, Indiana, Inc. recognizing that the Bible is the absolute standard of spirituality, morality, ethics, and the guiding rule of law, order, and faith for all members, do hereby adopt the following Constitution and Bylaws." Appellant's App. Vol. 3, p. 102.

         [¶5] Article III of the Bylaws sets forth the Church's articles of faith, stating in relevant part that "[t]his Christian Organization accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God. This record of God's revealed actions in human history is the authoritative basis for this Church's doctrine and practice." Id. at 104. Article 3.13, "A Gospel Church," provides that the Church is a "Gospel Church" and that the congregants believe that

[A] church of Jesus Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by His law; and exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word; that its only scriptural officers are bishops or pastors, and deacons whose qualifications, claims and duties are defined in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus.

Id. at 106-07. Under Article 3.16, "Civil Government," the congregants believe that

civil government is of divine appointment, for the best interest and good order of human society; and that magistrates are to be prayed for, conscientiously honored and obeyed; except only in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only Lord of the conscience, and the Prince of the Kings of the earth.

Id. at 107.

         [¶6] Article V addresses conflict resolution, providing that

[i]t is the responsibility of the Pastor and the Deacon Board to handle all issues pertaining to church discipline. They shall handle all such matters and dispense due disciplinary measures. These are to be based on and in line with the New Testament teachings and principles as implied in the Doctrinal Statement of the Church regarding church discipline found in Matthew 18:15-22 and Galatians 6:1-5.

Id. at 109 (emphasis added). Article VI sets forth Church discipline. Specifically, Article 6.1 states:

The Objective of Discipline- The objective and purpose of discipline is to prevent, correct, restrain, or remove the evil that may exist. To encourage and protect the right, and cherish the good for the edifying of the body of Christ, that it may be perfect in love, and without reproach. It is not to gratify personal prejudice or secure any selfish ends. It is to reclaim the wandering, guide the wayward, and secure the best spiritual interest of each member and the purity, good order, and efficiency of the entire body.

Id. (emphasis added). Regarding admonishment, the article provides:

1. You have firsthand knowledge of sin in the body of Christ
(a) If you let it go: He may not be saved (James 5:16-20)
(b) He continues to live in sin (I John 1:6)
2. Deal with it!
(a) Reprove him privately (Matthew l8:16)
(b) He continues- Reprove him with 2 or 3 witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16)
(c) He continues- Reprove him before the Church (Matthew 18:17, I Timothy 5:20)

Id. Matters of Church membership are found in Article VII. Article 7.3, "Rights of Members," provides in relevant part: "The church is a self-governed body aided by the Holy Spirit, Holy Scripture and Pastoral Leadership." Id. at 111.

         [¶7] Article VIII of the Bylaws sets forth the officers of the Church and states that there are only two "scriptural offices" within the Church-the pastor and the deacon. Id. at 112. The article, however, provides for additional offices in the Church, including the Board of Trustees.

         [¶8] Article 8.4 provides that the pastor is "responsible for providing spiritual and administrative leadership; to this end he serves as a preacher, teacher, servant and steward, and must be uncompromising in preaching the gospel." Id. at 113. Articles 8.6 and 8.7 address the removal of the pastor, specifically:

The process for removing the Pastor, up to and not including the final vote by the members in good standing is outlined in the Church Personnel Manual.[2] The Pastor may be subject to removal for the following reasons:
A. Failure to adhere to the Word of God, Articles of Faith, Baptist Doctrine, Spiritual and Moral standards as set forth in this document.
B. Inability and/or lack of desire to perform the duties of the Pastor.
C. Promotion of discord or lack of harmony within the congregation thereby reducing the effectiveness of the Pastor's ministry and the church's mission.
D. Revers [sic] to sin and worldly practices.
8.7 SPECIAL MEETING- A special meeting to retain or terminate the employment of the Pastor is called by a simple majority of the deacon board after all efforts to resolve the issues that triggered the removal process as detailed in the Church Personnel Manual is exhausted. The [P]astor does not have the authority to cancel or moderate this meeting. The Chairman of the Deacon Board or a deacon designated by the board may moderate this meeting. This meeting will be advertised in the Church Bulletin for at least two (2) consecutive Sundays.
To carry a vote to retain the Pastor or terminate his employment requires 51% of the members in good standing for a quorum, and 51% of those present to carry a vote.

Id. at 114 (emphasis added).

         [¶9] Under Article 8.10, the Deacon Board, which according to the Bylaws is comprised of no more than twelve deacons, is charged with "assist[ing] the Pastor in carrying out the spiritual and administrative duties in order to better meet the needs of the [C]hurch." Id. at 116. Deacons may be removed from service for:

• Absence without good cause from services of the church for three (3) consecutive months or more.
• Promotion of discord or lack of harmony with the teachings of the Bible, Articles of Faith and spiritual and moral standard of the church.
• Reverting to sin and worldly practices.
The Pastor and the Deacon Board will meet and define the specific violation committed by the Deacon charged before any contact concerning behavior of the Deacon by the church is made.

Id. at 117. Article 8.11 addresses the Trustee Board, providing that the "Trustee Board oversees the physical properties, financial assets and act [sic] as a bonded legal agent given its authority to act on behalf of the [C]hurch after consultation with the Pastor and Deacon Board." Id. at 118. Trustees may be relieved of service for the same transgressions as those set forth for deacons.

         [¶10] Article 8.17 provides that the Board of Directors for the Church "shall consist of the Pastor and selected members of the Deacon Board and the Trustee Board." Id. at 122. Any appointed deacon is eligible to serve on the Board of Directors of the Church. The Pastor serves as the chairman of the Board of Directors. The treasurer/financial secretary for the Church serves as the Treasurer of the Board of Directors, and the Clerk of the Church serves as the Board's Secretary. Two members from the congregation also serve on the Board. The Board of Directors is charged with managing the business and affairs of the Church, specifically:

(a) Establishing and maintaining written programs and policies;
(b) Overseeing operations;
(c) Managing and reviewing budget and finance;
(d) Complying with laws and regulations;
(e) Adopting and amending the organization's articles of incorporation and ...

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