Are Clergymen Employees Or Voluntary Church Workers?
By Ikechukwu James Orji (LL.B)
In recent times the court has been called upon to determine the validity of the relationship between clergymen and the churches that they work for. Many have been misled to see the relationship between the clergymen and the churches as one of employer and employee without considering other factors which make a valid contract of employment. This piece looks at the elements of a valid contract of employment, proof of employment, contract of employment of clergymen and the implication of being a voluntary worker of the church.
ELEMENTS OF A CONTRACT OF EMPLOYMENT
Contract of employment has the same elements as other ordinary contracts. Niki Tobi J.C.A.(as he then was) in Oriental Bank V. Bilante International stated that for there to be a valid contract there must be an offer, acceptance, consideration, legal capacity and intention to enter legal into relation.
An Offer may be defined as a definite undertaking or promise made by one party with the intention that it shall become binding on the party making it as soon as it is accepted by the party to whom it is addressed. Acceptance according to the court in Orient Bank’s case thus: “An acceptance of an offer is the reciprocal act or action of the offeree in which he indicates his agreement to the terms of the offer as conveyed to him by the offeror”. The most comprehensive and most applied definition of consideration is that of Lush, J., Currie V Misa ” A valuable consideration in the eye of the law may consist either in some right, interest, profit or benefit accruing to the one party, or some forbearance, detriment, loss or responsibility, given suffered or undertaken by the other.
Intention to create legal relations which is the fulcrum of this work simply means the desire or intention for the agreement or contract to be binding or enforceable in the court. Although the basis and importance of this fourth arm of the element of a valid contract have come under criticism by legal scholars its importance can be washed away. The essence of proving intention to create legal relations is for the court to be able to differentiate commercial agreements from domestic, social or religious transactions and agreements which the court most often does not dive into.
PROVE OF EMPLOYMENT
Employment of a person must be proved by evidence and not implied. The party alleging that he is employed by the other party must lead evidence to prove that he is validly employed. The National Industrial Court in Reverend Gideon Iheanacho V. Rt. Rev. Dr Cyril Okorocha & The Registered Trustees of the Diocese of Owerri Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) echoed this position. The court stated that employment cannot be presumed. That it is a fact which must be proved by evidence.
Employment may be proved by the production of an employment letter or agreement which most times set out the terms of the agreement between the employer and the employee. The employment agreement might go further to state the rights and privileges of each of the parties to the transaction.
EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT OF CLERGYMEN
There has been an unending debate and confusion as to whether clergymen (or women, as the case may be) are employees of the church or whether they are just voluntary workers “serving God”. If they are employees of the church, then they are entitled to certain privileges under the law and protected by the laws as other employees in the private sector. Some of which is job security and compensation where employment is terminated before the term stated in the agreement and other benefits as may be stated in the employment agreement.
But where they are not employees of the church then they have little or no legal protection as it relates to their employment. One of the implications is that service can be terminated at any time with no compensation or prior notice.
The answer as to whether a clergyman is an employee of a church would have been easily determined if clergymen can produce an employment letter or agreement as proof. An employment letter or agreement would have been an avenue for the court to determine the nature of the agreement and whether there is an intention to create a legal relationship which will give the court the jurisdiction to entertain the case.
Most clergymen or women do not have employment letters or agreement after they are anointed, ordained or installed as clergy after a mentorship program, after going through bible schools, seminaries or theological colleges or immediately after receiving ‘the call’. They enrolled into the church pay role and are given a congregation without reaching any form of agreement or understanding as to the nature of the relationship or transaction. In such situations where an employment letter or agreement cannot be produced, it will be difficult to know whether he is an employee or not. Nonetheless, the preponderance of decided cases tends to suggest that such a pastor who cannot produce a letter of employment is at best a voluntary worker of the church.
The position of a clergyman in the church was an issue in the case of Reverend Gideon Iheanacho V. Rt. Rev. Dr Cyril Okorocha & The Registered Trustees of the Diocese of Owerri Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). The clergyman in this case challenged his voluntary retirement by the church as unlawful, irregular and void. He argued that the acts of his appointment into various positions in the church and the salary and allowances paid to him constituted sufficient facts from which a contract of employment could be inferred. The National Industrial Court rejected the argument. The court said employment cannot be presumed. That it is a fact which must be proved by evidence. That the fact that a person was being paid a salary and allowance by another is not proof of a contract of employment. Also, the clergyman’s postings by the church to other parishes of the church could not by themselves create any employment contract between him and the church.
The court concluded thus: “The dispute in this suit arose from Exhibit C communicating the decision of the Defendants not to renew the License granted to the Claimant as a priest in the 2nd Defendant church. It is not a labor issue but a dispute arising from the internal administration of the 2nd Defendant’s church. I quite agree with the arguments of counsel for the Defendants that the case of the Claimant comes within the domestic or internal affairs of the 2nd Defendant and it is thus not justiciable.”
Also in Rev. Deji Olaleye & Anor v. Incorporated Trustees of Foursquare Gospel Church the Claimants were ordained as pastors in the Defendant church but later dismissed. They challenged the dismissal and filed an action before the National Industrial seeking reversal. The Claimants argued that the letter of their dismissal and the Handbook for pastors in the church were tacit and direct evidence of their status as employees in the church. The court rejected the argument and held that the Claimants were not employees of the church. The suit was therefore struck out.
In another case of Rev. Dr V. C. Iwu vs. The Board of Trustees Assemblies of God Church, the Claimant pastor was accused of making advances at a church member consequent upon which he was dismissed. When he challenged his dismissal, an issue arose as to whether he was an employee of the church or a voluntary worker. The pastor argued vehemently that he was paid every month like every other worker or teacher in the church and as such was not a voluntary worker. The church countered the argument and submitted that the Money paid to the pastor was a stipend to take care of his family, not a salary. The court agreed with the church and held that the Claimant was a voluntary worker. That even if he were an employee, he couldn’t be imposed on his unwilling employer – the church. The court emphatically held that a contract of employment cannot be presumed. That the fact that a person was being paid a salary and allowance is not proof of employment.
The court held as follows: “Since the subject matter of this suit is not covered in Section 254C (1) of the 1999 constitution, it will amount to probing into the internal affairs of the church should this court proceed with this matter. This court will definitely be going outside its bounds or undertaking a futile exercise if it refuses to decline jurisdiction at this point. Therefore, in the absence of a master-and-servant relationship between the parties, this court cannot entertain this matter. The court will be probing into the internal affairs of the church should the court proceed with this matter. I hold that this court has no jurisdiction to entertain and determine the Claimant’s suit.”
IMPLICATION OF BEING A VOLUNTARY WORKER OF THE CHURCH
The implication of the position taken in the foregoing cases is that in the absence of any letter or agreement of employment, the clergyman is not an employee of a church. A pastor is ordained to serve a church voluntarily. Therefore, the consequences are first, that his service can be terminated at any time. He is not entitled to a prior notice of intention to terminate the agreement and neither is he entitled to compensation for wrongful termination of employment.
Secondly, where there is no contract of employment between the church and the clergyman the relationship will be regulated by the church doctrine which amounts to the internal affairs of the church. Since the employment is an internal affair of the church then the dismissal of the clergyman will be an internal affair of the church and therefore not justiciable. In other words, courts will not be willing to interfere in the internal affairs of a church to query the dismissal of a clergyman.
Thirdly, the clergyman can withdraw from the employment without prior notice to the employer thereby leaving the employer stranded and in most cases leaving with a reasonable number of the congregation.
It is not enough that a clergyman is in charge of a congregation or that he is being paid a salary he must take extra efforts to prove that he is an employee of the church else he would be seen as a voluntary worker whose employment is not under any legal protection whatsoever. It is the advice of the author that clergymen and churches should enter into an employment agreement before the start of the relationship and terms should be highlighted to protect both parties.
 (1997) 8 NWLR( Pt. 515) 37 at 76
 Itsey E. Sagay, Nigerian Law of Contract, (2000) 2nd edition Spectrum Law Series at pg 10.
 At page77
 (1875) L.R. 10 Exch. 153 at P.162.
 Unreported Suit No. NICN/OW/83/2016 delivered on 11th April 2018.
 Unreported Suit No. NICN/LA/589/2015 delivered on January 10, 2019
 Unreported, Suit No. NICN/OW/41/2014, delivered on February 12, 2015
 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)
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