September 6, 2022
By Andrew T. Smith
Church denominational systems are typically structured as having congregational or hierarchical control. A congregational denominational structure (e.g., Southern Baptist Convention, Mennonite Church) typically consists of several local churches which fall under an accepted charter, with each local congregation managing its day-to-day operations without any direct oversight from a governing body. A hierarchical denominational structure (e.g., Catholic Church, Methodist Church, Episcopalian Church) on the other hand, involves a top-down structure where there is direct governance from a national church body over subsidiary organizations, including regional associations and local church congregations.
The Church of God (“COG”) is a hierarchical denominational structure with the national church body located at its headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee (“COG Headquarters”). COG Headquarters oversees regional Church of God offices, which in turn oversee local churches within each region to ensure compliance with the Church of God Book of Discipline, Church Order, and Governance (the “COG Minutes”). A common misunderstanding associated with the COG Minutes is how title to real property must be held for local churches.
The COG Minutes require that “title to all properties held by a local church, shall be held in trust for the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee, U.S.A.) subject to the provisions outlined in the International General Assembly Minutes.” Minutes 2020, Church of God Book of Discipline, Church Order, and Governance, S55(IV) (emphasis added). The local church, by and through its trustees or local corporate entity, holds title to real estate belonging to it. However, the COG Minutes require an additional provision in the local church’s vesting deed to grant an interest to the COG for its exclusive use and benefit by and through a trust.
This trust creates a conditional interest in the real estate for the COG that can be triggered upon the occurrence of certain events, which include: (1) The local church ceasing to function or exist; (2) The local church board of trustees ceasing to function or exist; (3) Any incident of dissention within the local church that inhibits its ability to function or exist; (4) Any incident of withdrawal from the COG denomination by the local church; and (5) Any conduct or action by the local church that is contrary to the COG Minutes or failure by the local church to remain in good standing with the COG. If any of these events occur, the COG may exercise its conditional interest in the property to acquire its title and preserve property rights created by the trust. Moreover, the COG Minutes require the local church to convey title to all its property, real and personal, to the State/Regional Board of Trustees if any of the foregoing events occur.
Accordingly, local churches that are part of the Church of God denomination should ensure that all title documents for real estate include the requisite trust provisions pursuant to the COG Minutes.
Andrew T. Smith is an associate attorney with Flint, Connolly & Walker, LLP representing the Church of God denomination in various litigation, corporate and real estate transactional matters. He is experienced in a range of legal issues affecting local churches owners and is knowledgeable of the Church of God polity and governance as it relates to Georgia law.