December 08, 2012 8:30 am (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Rudy was always known as a man who gave new meaning to the term “cheapskate.” He was married to Kathleen, a lovely woman, their adult children were all doing fine, and his business — which employed 15 people — had made him a wealthy man. But none of these wonderful gifts seemed to have any impact on Rudy’s sense of generosity.
He was always happy to come to church to socialize — and for the food brought by other members of the congregation — while Rudy brought only a large appetite.
“But then something happened, literally overnight, and miserly Rudy came to me one day, in tears,” his minister told You and the Law. “Kathleen had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and the prognosis wasn’t good. Then, one of the most generous offers our congregation had ever received was made by Rudy:
“If my wife pulls through — if everyone prays for her — I will donate $100,000 to the building fund, and to show my seriousness, here is a check in the amount of $2,500.”
“We needed about $150,000 for the addition to the church. His pledge gave us real hope,” the minister added.
“I told everyone about Rudy’s offer, and over the months, we did pray for Kathleen and she actually got better! I showed Rudy’s check to several of our financially successful members, and they in turn donated about $50,000, enough, with Rudy’s promised donation, to complete the project, and so we hired an architect.
“But Rudy has stopped coming to church. We confirmed that his wife is in remission and doing well. And so, I phoned Rudy, asking when we would receive his donation. Not only did he say that he had ‘changed his mind,’ but he now wanted his $2,500 returned!
“There are a lot of very angry people in our small congregation who wonder what we can or should do about this. I know that the legal system does not like to get involved with church matters, but can we legally enforce Rudy’s pledge?”
Back out on a promised donation, and you can be sued
We ran this situation by one of our nation’s leading experts in the area of church law, Springfield, Mo.-based attorney Richard Hammar, editor of Church Law and Tax Report. He has no doubt that Rudy the Miser has gotten himself in big trouble and could easily wind up in court.
“Be careful of what you promise,” Hammar cautions. “It may be legally enforceable. If they have relied to their detriment, because of your pledge, for you to renege has incredible ethical, moral and legal implications.
“While, yes, it is true that courts generally stay out of internal disputes in religious organizations, in this situation I would expect a court to enforce Rudy’s pledge, based on the contract principle of detrimental reliance.
“And we are not only talking about religious organizations,” Hammar was quick to stress, “Where funds are pledged to charities, schools, museums, and relied on, for example by hiring an architect or soliciting donations from others, then the pledge is enforceable, at least to the extent that expenses have been incurred based on this reliance.
“Where there is a very large pledge that becomes a significant component of a large church project — and the donor reneges — the steering committee or others who manage the church may feel that they have no choice but to file suit. It is not an enviable position for either side,” Hammar stressed.
Negative PR often discourages legal action
“However, before taking legal action, you simply must ask if the congregation wants to incur negative PR by suing one of its members to enforce a pledge. The realistic fear is that taking a member to court would discourage others from making pledges, and for that reason, most congregations do not take the legal route.
“My advice in these situations is to always meet with the donor and explain the expenses which have been incurred in reliance on the pledge and indicate that you do not want to take this to court, but are prepared to do so. I would say something along the lines of:
‘We believed and relied on your promise and now are in trouble. How can you justify not carrying through with your commitment? This situation is a test of our faith, our ethics, honesty and integrity. Did you mean what you told us?
Finally, Hammar suggested this citation from the Old Testament:
“Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, ‘The Lord has commanded that if a man vows to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.