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Church of First Born of Tennessee, Inc. v. Slagle

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

June 13, 2017

CHURCH OF THE FIRST BORN OF TENNESSEE, INC.
v.
TOM SLAGLE, ET AL.

          Session Date: December 15, 2015

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Trousdale County No. 7196 Charles K. Smith, Chancellor

         A dispute among members of a church arose over control of the church. One group of members incorporated and then filed suit against individual members of the church seeking to quite title to certain real property. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. In granting the individual church members' motion and denying the corporation's motion, the trial court found the church to be congregationally governed with a clear and established practice for handling real property transactions. We conclude that the corporation lacked standing to bring the action and that the corporation's case should be dismissed on that basis. Therefore, we reverse.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Reversed and Case Remanded.

          Larry L. Crain, Brentwood, Tennessee, and Joshua R. Denton and D. Hiatt Collins Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Church of the First Born of Tennessee, Inc.

          Joe M. Haynes, Goodlettsville, Tennessee; Keith Jordan, Nashville, Tennessee; and J. Thomas Smith, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellees, Tom Slagle, Billy H. Ray, Jon James, Kelvin Gregory, Chester H. Cole, Earl B. Thompson, Gary Kelley, Roger Ray, Evelyn H. Cole, and Michael Spears.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Andy D. Bennett and Richard H. Dinkins, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE

         I.

         A. The Church of the FirstBorn

         In 1933, Prator Donald "P.D." Hardin formed the Church of the Firstborn[1] (the "Church"), acting as its first elder/overseer. As elder/overseer, he served as the pastor and spiritual leader of the Church.

         P.D. Hardin led the construction of the Church's first building in New Deal, Sumner County, Tennessee, in 1936. During that same time period, a Church congregation also met at Hartsville in Trousdale County. Later Church congregations would meet in Portland in Sumner County and Nashville in Davidson County. But, by the 1980s, the Church had only two locations: Hartsville in Trousdale County and White House in Robertson County.

         Outside of spiritual matters, governance of the Church, an unincorporated association, could best be described as informal. Trustees held title to real property owned by the Church and executed documents on behalf of the Church. A board of deacons handled many of the business and temporal affairs of the Church. Historically, the elder/overseer selected deacons, but the manner for selection of trustees is a matter of dispute. Although P.D. Hardin allegedly drafted bylaws for the Church, the precise role of deacons and, to a lesser extent, the trustees in the Church is also disputed.

         P.D. Hardin remained as elder/overseer of the Church until his death on September 19, 1983. Before his passing, he selected his nephew, Bob C. Hardin, to succeed him. During Bob Hardin's tenure as the elder/overseer, the Church began construction of a private Christian school on land in Robertson County adjoining the White House sanctuary. The school, which was named Dayspring Academy, opened in August 2006.

         Bob Hardin died in 2008 without naming a successor elder/overseer. He had, however, ordained Robbie Kline to be the pastor of the Hartsville congregation and Roger Brewer to be the pastor of the White House congregation. At Bob Hardin's death, the board of deacons had seven members: John Edward Andrews, Mickey Andrews, Kelvin Gregory, Jon James, Billy H. Ray, Tom Slagle, and Earl B. "Brownie" Thompson.

         B. Church Schism

         After Elder Bob Hardin's death in 2008, disagreements arose amongst the Church's members. The underlying basis for the disagreements is itself a matter of dispute. Some members claim that the dispute centers over "the Church's doctrinal position on the sacrament of baptism and its twenty-year long practice of using a Hebrew version of the name of God as a central tenant." Others trace the disagreements to Dayspring Academy and the "substantial and continuing costs of subsidizing" its operation.

         Though the precise timeline is unclear, dissension grew, and the members chose sides. Certain members, including deacons, who formerly worshipped at White House moved their attendance to Hartsville. The minutes of the March 13, 2010, meeting of the deacons reflect the tensions between those attending services in White House and those attending services in Hartsville.

         During the meeting, which was held in White House, the chairman of the deacons, Tom Slagle, complained that Church members who attended in Hartsville were being asked to leave the premises in White House. After commenting that the Church had no leader, he advocated for the "deacons to take charge" and "to put all this to rest." The minutes reflect that the deacons voted "to take control of all functions of the Church of the Firstborn."

         Mr. Slagle sent a letter to Roger Brewer, pastor at White House, advising him of the vote of the deacons. The letter, dated March 13, 2010, stated that the deacons would assume control of the following functions of the Church, "just to name a few":

1. Security of the Church of the Firstborn, Dayspring Academy, and all property owned by ...

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