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Alicea v. New Brunswick Theological Seminary

Decided: October 24, 1990; As Amended November 30, 1990.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Pressler, Baime and Arnold M. Stein. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.


This appeal presents difficult questions concerning the jurisdiction of a civil court over an employment contract dispute between a theological seminary and a faculty member. Plaintiff, an ordained minister, instituted this action in the Law Division, alleging that the New Brunswick Theological Seminary (NTS), an educational institution affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, improperly denied him tenure contrary to an agreement between him and its former president. The Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of NTS primarily on the basis that the dispute implicated church doctrine and practice not subject to the authority of the secular courts. We affirm the judgment but for reasons somewhat different than those expressed by the Law Division. We hold that the tension between the Church's ecclesiastical interests and plaintiff's contract rights can best be alleviated by requiring submission of the dispute to NTS's established grievance process.


The salient facts are not in dispute. We begin by describing the interrelationship between the Church and NTS and their organizational structure.

The Reformed Church of America, formerly the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in North America, is a religious institution committed to "minister[ing] to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching and proclaim[ing] the gospel of Jesus Christ." The Church is a hierarchical ecclesiastical body. The highest assembly and judicatory of the Church is the General Synod. The Book of Church Order, the Church's constitution, provides that the General Synod is to "exercise a general superintendence" over the interests of the Church and is to have "original authority over all matters relating to the theological seminaries . . ., the appointment and installation of their professors, and the regulation of the courses of instruction."

The General Synod exercises its supervision over the theological seminaries through a seminary board whose members it elects. The Book of Church Order states that the Board of Theological Education (BTE) is to supervise the activities of the Church's theological seminaries.

NTS was founded by the Church in 1784. Although its mission was and continues to be "to prepare men and women for educated and faithful leadership in the church . . . and . . . in specialized ministries," it also offers combined degree programs with other institutions affording theological study with ancillary disciplines. However, NTS itself offers no secular degrees or courses of study. Every president of NTS has been an ordained minister of the Church. All full time faculty members and administrators are ordained ministers. In recent years, NTS has attracted a substantial number of students from other Christian denominations. Because of this diversity, some faculty and administrators who are ordained clergy in other Christian churches have been appointed. However, these individuals have been required to subscribe to the Church's Declaration for Professors of Theology, affirm the doctrinal standards of the Church and accept the authority of NTS's governing body. In short, NTS is an institution of the Church and is wholly accountable to it.

NTS is a non-profit corporation organized under Title 15 (N.J.S.A. 15:2-1a and b, repealed by L. 1983, c. 127, replaced by ยง 15A:16-2, eff. Oct. 1, 1983). According to the BTE's bylaws, the General Synod is the sole member of the corporation and the BTE is its supervising authority. The members of the BTE are designated as NTS trustees and must be either ministers or laypersons of the Church. NTS's president serves as an ex-officio member of the BTE. The BTE exercises its powers through various standing committees. The BTE's Executive Committee may make interim faculty appointments not to exceed one full academic year. However, according to the BTE's bylaws, only the BTE is authorized to grant full time faculty appointments for a term exceeding one year. So too, the BTE is solely

authorized to make administrative and faculty promotions. The BTE's Academic Affairs Committee is responsible for recommending appointments, promotions and grants of tenure.

NTS's policies concerning appointments, promotions, tenure, sabbatical leaves, terminations and grievances are set forth in a comprehensive faculty personnel manual. The manual provides that faculty appointments in the "tenure track" are normally made for three-year terms. In the second year of a second consecutive three-year appointment, the faculty member is to be considered for tenure after a "thorough[ ] evaluat[ion]." Although the manual is silent with respect to which Church or NTS body is to render tenure decisions, the BTE's bylaws provide that the Academic Affairs Committee is to "recommend to the Board appropriate action with regard to request[s] for tenure of faculty members as submitted by the chief administrative officers of the [s]eminaries." By implication, the bylaws suggest that the BTE is to make all decisions with respect to tenure. The manual provides an optional faculty grievance process. Once internal efforts at reconciliation have been attempted and have failed, "[f]aculty grievances . . . may be appealed to the [BTE] through its Student and Faculty Concerns Committee."

Plaintiff commenced his employment with NTS in 1978. After serving approximately two years, plaintiff was appointed Director of Urban Studies for a three-year term from July 1, 1980 to June 30, 1983. The urban studies program offered evening theological courses. The program was jointly offered by NTS and the New York Theological Seminary.

It is undisputed that the then president Rev. Howard Hageman appointed plaintiff to serve as an assistant professor for the 1983-84 academic year. However, the exact nature of that appointment, whether it was temporary or "tenure track," is hotly contested. There is no BTE memorialization of this appointment on record. NTS thus contends that the one-year assignment was a temporary non-tenure track appointment

which did not require BTE ratification. In other words, NTS claims that President Hageman merely exercised his prerogative to make non-tenure track faculty appointments for one year or less.

Plaintiff asserts that his appointment was part of a larger agreement between him and President Hageman under which he was to be placed in the "tenure track." In his affidavit, plaintiff contended that in late 1983 he received an offer of employment as a full time professor from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. At approximately the same time, the New York Theological Seminary, which, as we have mentioned, had previously been affiliated with NTS, severed its relationship, leaving NTS with an extremely diminished evening program. Also at this time, a NTS professor in the same field as plaintiff submitted his resignation. According to plaintiff, President Hageman asked him to decline the offer of the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Plaintiff was assured by President Hageman that he would be given a "tenure track" appointment if he accepted the one-year assignment, and that he would be granted tenure upon completion of his doctorate.

Plaintiff accepted President Hageman's offer and the one-year appointment as a member of NTS's faculty. During the 1983-84 academic year, plaintiff taught a course in church history and was also appointed Assistant Director ...

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