LEGAL PROCESSES REGARDING PROCEEDS FROM MORTGAGE OR SALE OF CHURCH PROPERTY

THE JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF

THE AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL ZION CHURCH

IN THE MATTER OF

THE PETITION OF BISHOP MARSHALL STRICKLAND

DECISION No. 2016-36

This matter is before the Judicial Council by letter  from Bishop Marshall H. Strickland, a member in good standing in the Philadelphia and Baltimore Conference, Mid-Atlantic II Episcopal District, of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, (hereinafter referred to as “The A.M.E. Zion Church”), requesting clarification and declaratory judgment pursuant to the Rules of the Judicial Council in accordance with the Act passed by the 1988 General Conference (as Amended by The Book of Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (2008)) (hereinafter referred to as (“The Discipline”) which reads in part as follows: 

 

JURISDICTION 

 

The Judicial Council shall not have original jurisdiction, since decisions are declaratory and final in the interim of the General Conference. The Discipline ¶ 361(b) at 129 (2012).  

 

DUTIES 

 

To hear and make declaratory judgments when petitioned to do so when any law is subject to more than one interpretation or any paragraph in The Discipline is of doubtful meaning.   Any person in good and regular standing in The A.M.E. Zion Church can petition the Judicial Council for such a judgment.  The Council's decision is final unless revised or reversed by the General Conference.  Id. at ¶ 362(b).  

 

NOTE:  The basic reference for The Discipline is “Paragraph”.  The Article and Paragraph Numbers have changed. 

 

FACTS OF THE CASE    

 

A paramount question concerning the methods that should be utilized in the mortgage or sale of Connectional properties is being raised. The ultimate question is accompanied by subsequent questions that must be answered in detailing a response. While this request was not in the form of a petition and does not present a specific controversy, it does raise concern about, and is essential in the survival of a denomination made unique in its Connectional history. 

 

QUESTION(S) TO BE DECIDED 

 

1.  “Has the law relative to the mortgaging and sale of property been revised or abolished?”  

 

2.  “Does the process of advice and consent inherent in the sequence of trustee relationships from the local church to Connectional trustees necessitate a firm adherence to maintain Connectional integrity?” 

 

3.  “Can or should a person or a group circumvent or ignore these legal processes?”  

 

4.  “Should the clause emphasizing the specific handling of those funds be ignored and monies diverted to other administrative purposes?” 

 

DECISION 

 

1.  Has the law relative to the mortgaging and selling of property of The A.M.E. Zion Church been abolished or revised? 

 

In short, the answer is NO!  In a historical context: 

 

The uniform law, custom, and practice of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in reference to the disposition of church property is, that no church property can be permanently disposed of by any trustee, board, or part thereof, or any Quarterly Conference, or part of the same, unless such disposition has been previously voted on and agreed to by a decided majority of the bona fide members of the said church enrolled on the books and worshiping in the church edifice in which such members commonly meet, owned by them, with any other property of said church. Any disposition of church property in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of a permanent character, no matter whether it be by sale, lease, or any other contract made by whomsoever otherwise than in the foregoing manner is illegal, and therefore void. 

 

Hand-Book of The Discipline of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Right Rev. S.T. Jones at 34-35 (adopted in 1888).  Furthermore,  

 

 When it becomes necessary to dispose of church property for the payment of debt thereon, with a view to invest the proceeds of sale, after payment of debts, the entire amount remaining shall be applied to the purchase or improvement of other property which shall be deeded to the church, or to a board of trustees in trust for the membership of the church—the aforesaid shall be in accordance with the judgment and decision of the Quarterly Conference of the society. 

 

Id. §5 at 154.  It is well settled that real and personal property of the church is under the control of the local church and that all real property is held in trust for the religious and corporate body known as The A.M.E. Zion Church (or Connection). 

 

All assets owned by an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, whether incorporated, unincorporated, or abandoned: (a) shall be held by the trustees of the church in trust for The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; and (b) are subject to the Discipline, usage and ministerial appointments of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church as from time to time authorized and declared by the General Conference of said church.  

 

The Discipline ¶ 495.4 at 180. Further, ¶ 498 makes it known that all assets held in trust of The A.M.E. Zion Church, and all premises acquired for use as a place of divine worship must contain a trust clause. In addition, that “the absence of a trust clause in any deed or other conveyance does not relieve or exclude a local church in any way from its African Methodist Episcopal Zion Connectional responsibilities or from the board of trustees of its responsibilities of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Id. ¶ 499.1 at 181.  It does not end there, the discipline continues by stating that: 

 

Real property acquired by a conveyance containing either or both of the foregoing trust clauses may be sold in conformity with the provisions of the Discipline of (T)he African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. When its use as a church or parsonage, as the case may be, has been or is intended to be terminated; and when such real estate is sold or mortgaged in accordance with provisions of the Discipline of (t)he African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to the action taken shall constitute a release and discharge of the real property so sold and conveyed from either or both of the foregoing trust clauses; or in the event of the execution of a mortgage, such consent of the presiding Bishop shall constitute a formal recognition of the priority of such mortgage lien and the subornation of the foregoing trust provisions thereof; and no bona fide purchaser or mortgagee relying upon the foregoing record shall be charged with any responsibility with respect to the disposition by such local church of the proceeds of any such sale or mortgage. 

 

Id. ¶ 199.3 at 181-182. 

 

Property and the sale or mortgage thereof is a matter of the local church and the local trustees. From time to time a local congregation may not exist. In such case, the Reversion Clause of the Book of Discipline states: 

 

“Whenever, hereafter a particular congregation shall cease to function or exist, or is formally dissolved in accordance with the provisions of the Discipline, or become extinct by reason of the dispersal of its members, the abandonment of its work or cause, such property as it may have, whether real, personal, intellectual, tangible or intangible, shall be held in trust by the local board of trustees, and used, and applied for such uses, purposes, and trusts as the Annual Conference, within whose bounds the local church is situated, may direct, limit, and appoint, or such property may be sold or disposed of in accordance with the provisions of the Book of Discipline. 

 

Id. ¶ 499 at182. To protect against individualism in disposing with church property, the law of the A.M.E. Zion Church provides that: 

 

The trustees shall not in any case whatsoever dispose of church property by sale or otherwise without the consent of the majority of the members in full connection, expressed by vote in a meeting called for that purpose, of which due notice has been given. Provided, however, that no congregation, Pastor, nor trustee board or agent of the congregation shall mortgage or sell any property of the A.M.E. Zion Church without confirmation of the Quarterly Conference and written consent of the Bishop of the district or the Annual Conference. 

 

The Discipline ¶ 502 at.183. 

 

There are notable and procedural exceptions should the matter of property go beyond the local church or the Annual Conference:  

 

"The General Conference shall appoint at each General Conference a Board of Connectional Trustees consisting of one member from each Episcopal District, which shall be duly incorporated..."The Discipline ¶ 436 at 161 (2012).  The duties of said Board of Trustees are spelled out in The Discipline ¶ 437. This paragraph refers to donations, bequests, grants or funds in trust made to this Board or to the Connectional Church for any charitable purpose. The Board is to administer said funds and the proceeds thereof in accordance with the directions of the donors.  This is sometimes mistaken to believe that it pertains to all church property.  It does not. 

 

2.  “Does the process of advice and consent inherent in the sequence of trustee relationships from the local church to Connectional trustees necessitate a firm adherence to maintain Connectional integrity?” 

 

Yes. The integrity of the General Church is part of our mission as a denomination.  The Mission Statement of The A.M.E. Zion Church is where we first make reference to this principle.  It states that, "Implicit in this statement is the belief that the church should have a positive relationship to God vertically and a positive relationship to humankind horizontally.  Therefore, we love God and are obedient to His commandments and loyal to all for which He and His Kingdom stand." The Discipline at 12 (2012).  Furthermore, "The General Conference shall appoint at each of its Quadrennial Sessions a Board of Connectional Trustees, consisting of one member from each Episcopal District, which shall be duly incorporated..   Id. ¶ 436 at 161.  The duties of said Connectional Trustees is to hold in trust for the benefit of all donations, bequests, grants or funds in trust, etc., to administer said funds and t the proceeds thereof in accordance with the directions of the donors, under the direction of the General Conference. (See The Discipline, ¶ 437 at 161. 

 

3.  “Can or should a person or a group circumvent or ignore these legal processes?”   

 

No.  The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has established laws codified in The Book of Discipline of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. (The Discipline) for which no person or entity can circumvent, or change the legal process, except the General Conference. The Discipline provides that:  

 

The General Conference shall have power to revise and amend the rules whenever necessary for the general interest of the Connection; and all such rules shall become valid immediately after the sanction of that body. The General Conference is the supreme ruling or law-making body of (T)he A.M.E. Zion Church while in session. Only the General Conference can change legislation one adopted by it in regular or special session.  

 

1. No committee, commission, council, conference or board, including the Board of Bishops shall have the authority or right to exclude any amendments adopted by the General Conference from the Discipline of The A.M.E. Zion Church. Id. ¶121 at 38-39. 

 

Additionally, The Preamble of (T)he Constitution of The A.M.E. Zion Church makes it clear that in addition to “preser[ving] [the] tradition[s] [of] a people called ‘Zion Methodist’, maintain[ing] Christian fellowship and discipline, edify[ing] believers, convert[ing] the world, transform[ing] society,” The Constitution of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, (hereinafter referred to as “The Constitution”) was also written to “ perfect our unity and structure",  The Discipline at 2.  (Emphasis Added). 

 

The term “perfect our unity and structure” infers that there is a specific process that is to be followed.  The various divisions, articles and sections of The Constitution attempt to address every situation the “Zion Methodist” will encounter.  Therefore, while members of this great body of “Zion Methodist” can attempt to modify a process, rule or procedure, they must follow the strict process of The Constitution to make such modifications.  Until a rule is changed and ratified by the General Conference, the same does not become law and the rules, regulations that are in place must be followed.  Legal processes are vital aspects of law established by an assembly.  To circumvent the laws or rules is tantamount to establishing new law or rules.’  

 

To do anything other than what The Discipline prescribes, or to follow some other Rule, is considered circumventing the law.  The Discipline is clear as to the mortgage and sale of Church property and must be followed. No person or group should circumvent or ignore the legal process as outlined in The Book of Discipline of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church that is in full force and effect at the time of the act in question. 

 

4.  “Should the clause emphasizing the specific handling of those funds be ignored and monies diverted to other administrative purposes?” 

 

No.  The specific handling of funds is clearly defined in The Discipline. Therefore, as stated above, a person or a group cannot or should not circumvent or ignore the legal processes regarding the mortgage or sale of church property. 

 

BY ORDER OF THE JUDICIAL COUNCIL, THIS 15th DAY OF July, 2016. 

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