Church minister claims unfair dismissal, but is he an employee? 

Church minister claims unfair dismissal representing the challenges of religious employment

A truly unique unfair dismissal case recently came before the Fair Work Commission. It involved a minister who claimed he had been unfairly dismissed by the Uniting Church of Australia. However, the church argued that the minister was not even an employee, and hence his unfair dismissal claim was invalid. 

The minister had been dismissed for opposing the Uniting Church’s stance on same-sex marriage. And in his unfair dismissal claim, he took issue with the church’s characterisation of his work as being “religious and spiritual.” He argued that this implied that his employment dealt with issues purely in the “heavenly” realm. And that rather, his employment dealt with far more “real and practical” matters on our earthly plane. 

So, did the Fair Work Commission consider the minister to be an employee? Or did he have his unfair dismissal claim rejected? Let’s take a look at the curious events of this unfair dismissal case – Rev. Hedley Wycliff ‘Atunaisa Fihaki v Uniting Church In Australia, Qld Synod [2023]

Uniting church minister is dismissed for anti-gay marriage statements 

In 2013, Dr. Reverend Hedley Wycliff Atunasia Fihaki had been appointed a minister of Mooloolaba Uniting Church, located in Maroochydore, Queensland. Between January 2019 and August 2021, Reverend Fihaki made several public statements in which he declared his opposition to same-sex marriage. These were made on social media and to mainstream media outlets. 

These statements were in conflict with the official position of the Uniting Church. In 2018, the Uniting Church National Assembly altered the church’s position on the subject of same-sex marriages. Instead of opposing them, the Uniting Church declared that it would sanction same-sex marriages in certain circumstances. 

In 2022, Reverend Fihaki was dismissed by Mooloolaba Uniting Church for his statements. He subsequently filed an unfair dismissal claim with the Fair Work Commission. In his claim, Reverend Fihaki argued that the Mooloolaba Uniting Church had not followed due process in dismissing him. And that he had been denied procedural fairness.  

Reverend Fihaki was seeking a years’ worth of his salary as compensation from the Uniting Church of Australia. 

“A call from God to ministry:” Uniting Church challenges the minister’s unfair dismissal claim 

Upon receiving notice of Reverend Fihaki’s unfair dismissal claim, the Uniting Church of Australia, Queensland Synod made a jurisdictional objection to it. The church argued to the Fair Work Commission that Reverend Fihaki was not an employee under the definition provided in the Fair Work Act 2009. 

Uniting Church of Australia stated that Reverend Fihaki was “ordained as a Minister of the Word.” And that this the relationship between him and the church was purely “covenantal or spiritual.” The church argued that while ministers may refer to them as their employer, their ministry is not employment but instead is “a call from God to ministry” and that they are “ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ serving God’s reign.” 

The church also argued to the Fair Work Commission that ministers aren’t paid or renumerated. But rather, they are given a stipend, which is a “living allowance” to pay for “their needs, rather than a salary.” The Uniting Church of Australia also stated that it was comprised of “a range of unincorporated associations.” And therefore, there “could not be a contract, oral or otherwise, formed with these entities.” 

“The perceived will of God:” Church offers Letter of Call do disprove minister’s argument 

A key piece of evidence that the Uniting Church of Australia offered the Fair Work Commission to prove that Reverend Fihaki was not an employee was his “Letter of Call for Congregational Placement.” This letter was considered by Reverend Fihaki as his contract, and which he had agreed to upon his ministerial placement in 2013. 

The letter stated that Reverend Fihaki’s ministry at the church was “a call to a placement” that “gives effect to the perceived will of God.” And it specifically mentioned that the relationship between his ministry and the church “is not an employment relationship.”  

Minister argues his unfair dismissal case to the Fair Work Commission 

Reverend Fihaki submitted a document along with his unfair dismissal application to the Fair Work Commission. In this document, titled “Why Ministers are Employees,” he enumerated many reasons to support that claim. Amongst the reasons were that: 

  • Ministers are paid an annual taxable salary like regular employees. And that they must lodge tax returns and receive a Notice of Assessment each year.  
  • Reverend Fihaki received a monthly “pay slip” and not a “stipend slip,” which outlined that he was paid “$28.32 per hour” for the amount of hours he worked. And on this pay slip, it stated that his employer was the Uniting Church of Australia. 
  • A stipend is a wage, and that the stipend was only part of Reverend Fihaki’s salary package, which also included a housing and travel allowance, and superannuation payments. 
  • Reverend Fihaki’s ministry was performed in “real practical terms on earth,” and not in the “heavenly” realm, as the Uniting Church of Australia seemed to suggest. 
  • Ministers are not simply “ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ serving Jesus.” If this were true, he argued, then ministers could do “absolutely whatever they like” based on what God personally placed in their “hearts and souls.” 
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Australian Government regarded “religious practitioners as employees.” And as such, they were able to receive JobKeeper payments. Reverend Fihaki said that the Uniting Church of Australia accepted this ruling as he was able to receive JobKeeper payments through them. 

In his evidence delivered to the Fair Work Commission, Reverend Fihaki also highlighted the court case JGE v The Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan to support his argument that his relationship with the church was one of employment. The judge in this case stated that “it does not follow that the holder of an ecclesiastical office cannot be employed under a contract of service” and that “each case must be judged on its own particular facts.” 

termination of employment

Judgement Day: The Fair Work Commission rules on the unfair dismissal case 

In its judgement on this unfair dismissal case, the Fair Work Commission found many of Reverend Fihaki’s arguments to be flawed. 

With regard to his argument that his Letter of Call was an employment contract, the Fair Work Commission flatly stated that “it is not an employment contract.” This was because the letter specifically outlined as much.   

The Fair Work Commission also took issue with Reverend Fihaki’s claim that he was an employee because he was referred to as one on his payslips. It was found that he was only referred to thusly because a generic payslip template was used by the outsourced payroll provider. 

Issue was also taken with Reverend Fihaki’s claim that he was an employee because he received JobKeeper payments. It was found that he only started receiving the payments when the government allowed for religious practitioners to receive them. 

The Fair Work Commission also dismissed Reverend Fihaki’s claims that his stipend was a salary and that his superannuation and taxation were also indicative of an employment relationship with the church. 

Fair Work Commission rejects the unfair dismissal claim  

Ultimately, the key piece of evidence which the Fair Work Commission’s decision hinged on was the Letter of Call. It found that the letter established Reverend Fihaki as a Minister of the Word, and not an employee. And it never stated that the church would pay him a salary, but instead, a stipend. 

The Fair Work Commission therefore ruled that Reverend Fihaki “is not an employee or an independent contractor.” And that instead, he is “in a separate category of spiritual or covenantal relationship.” Reverend Fihaki’s unfair dismissal claim was therefore rejected on jurisdictional grounds. 

Melbourne pastor wins bid to make unfair dismissal claim 

A similar unfair dismissal involving a church minister took place in 2020. But this time, the Fair Work Commission found that the minister was indeed an employee.  

The unfair dismissal case – Zion Church in Melbourne Australia Inc v Solomon Woldeyohannes – involved Melbourne Pastor Solomon Woldeyohannes. Originally a delivery driver, he was approached by the Zion Church in 2008 to become a pastor. He soon quit his job and began occasionally preaching at the church. Then in 2011, became a full-time salaried employee. 

But things soon soured between Pastor Woldeyohannes and the Zion Church. He was accused by a senior pastor of showing a “lack of submission.” And he had allegedly thrown parishioners out of his services for wrongdoings he could not prove. 

Pastor is dismissed after failing to repent 

Then in September 2019, Mr Woldeyohannes entered the Zion Church in Melbourne while a service was taking place. He disrupted proceedings, and according to witnesses, he began aggressively ranting and cursing the church’s leadership. Pastor Woldeyohannes was wearing what appeared to be a shredded suit at the time. 

The Zion Church subsequently prohibited him from entering the church. It also told Pastor Woldeyohannes to repent for his actions, or else he would be dismissed. He of course refused to repent, and so Mr Woldeyohannes was dismissed. 

termination of employment trial

Zion Church makes its argument to the Fair Work Commission 

At Pastor Woldeyohannes’ unfair dismissal hearing, Zion Church argued that he was never an employee. And that therefore, his claim should be rejected on jurisdictional grounds. The church argued to the Fair Work Commission that: 

  • Pastor Woldeyohannes did not ever agree to an employment contract, written or oral. 
  • The relationship between him and the church was “spiritual, not physical.” And that it was not one of “legal or financial obligation.” 
  • The church paid him a salary as an “act of good will” and not because of any legal obligation. 
  • He had no set hours of work or any legal obligation to perform work. 

Pastor tells a different story to the Fair Work Commission 

In response, Pastor Woldeyohannes argued to the Fair Work Commission that: 

  • Zion Church had encouraged him to leave his delivery driver job. This meant therefore that he had been recruited for a paid position. 
  • There was an unwritten employment contract. He said that he was regularly paid a salary in exchange for performing duties outlined in the constitution of the church. 
  • The church had confirmed that he was a full-time pastor in various correspondence. 
  • The church had granted him annual leave entitlements and paid him superannuation. 

Fair Work Commission rules that pastor is an employee 

Ultimately, the Fair Work Commission sided with the argument of Pastor Woldeyohannes. It found that there was an employment contract. And that the church required him to perform a range of duties, for which he was paid regularly and consistently. It was also found that he had a regular set of hours. Also, that he was paid for annual and personal leave. 

“If it were not for the religious nature of his role, it is very difficult to see how there could have been any question at all that… [Pastor Woldeyohannes] was an employee of the Church,” the Fair Work Commission said.  

Pastor Woldeyohannes’s unfair dismissal claim was therefore allowed to proceed a hearing. However, in a twist no one expected, he later withdrew his application. 

Have you been unfairly dismissed? 

Have you experienced an unfair dismissal from your job? If you believe you have, get in touch with A Whole New Approach right away. You only have 21 days to lodge an unfair dismissal claim with the Fair Work Commission. 

Our team has over 30 years of experience with unfair dismissal claims. We’ve helped more than 16,000 employees across the country take action through the Fair Work Commission. Employers respect and fear our reputation, built upon our comprehensive understanding of the field.  

Don’t allow unfair treatment to go unchallenged. Contact us today at 1800 333 666 for a confidential and free consultation.