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Slagle v. The Church of First Born of Tennessee

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

August 7, 2017


          Session December 15, 2015

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Robertson County No. CH11CV10274, CH11CV10702 Laurence M. McMillan, Jr., Chancellor.

         A dispute among members of a church arose over control of the church. One group of church members incorporated, and then individual members of the church filed suit against the corporation and a second entity that operated a school on church property. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court determined that the organizational structure of the church was "connectional" or "hierarchical" in nature and that all property of the church was under the control of the church's board of deacons. Because we conclude that there are genuine issues of material fact that preclude entry of summary judgment, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

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

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

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

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


          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE.


         A. The Church of the First Born

         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, selected Robbie Kline to be the pastor of the Hartsville congregation and Roger Brewer to be the pastor of the White House congregation.[2] 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 worshiped 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 Church of the Firstborn
2. Taping program
3. Official record of attendance and all official functions of the secretary of the Church of the Firstborn
4. Campground
5. All business functions of the Church of the Firstborn and Dayspring Academy

         But the disagreements continued.

         At the board of deacons meeting on Saturday, August 7, 2010, the deacons discussed a meeting in Hartsville the previous Sunday. As relayed by the deacons, members worshipping in Hartsville expressed concerns about the Church's finances, the funding of Dayspring Academy, unmet needs in Hartsville, and their lack of input on spending. Some members wanted to separate the offerings from Hartsville and White House, and some objected to their offerings being used to fund Dayspring Academy. Concerns also included the divisions between White House and Hartsville and a rumor that the Church might sell the Hartsville sanctuary to raise revenue.

         The deacons also discussed declining Church revenues and the differences among members of the Church. To address the financial concerns, the deacons debated cutting costs at or possibly closing Dayspring Academy. The minutes reflect that Mr. Slagle declared that "We will not save both; it is save the church or save the school." Another deacon indicated that the Church's problems were "spiritual, " and some of the deacons suggested that the pastors, Robbie Kline in Hartsville and Roger Brewer in White House, needed to get together.

         The same day as the deacons' meeting, Pastor Brewer circulated a three-point statement of faith and requested that it be signed to indicate assent to upholding the Church's "doctrine." Some versions of the statement of faith included the following sentence: "We do not and will not accept or fellowship any other plan of salvation or any other baptism formula." Deacons Ed and Mickey Andrews signed a version of the statement of faith that included the quoted sentence, but the remaining five deacons did not. ...

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