Church planting is very similar to starting a business or having a baby. If you don’t start on a firm legal footing, you could run into some serious problems later. When churches are closing their doors, strong, legally secure church plants are vital. Here are 7 areas in which church plants could be legally vulnerable.
1. Church plants face an increase in zoning difficulty. Managing attorney Josh Bryant makes it a matter of habit to read every reported case he can in which a church is a party to the law suit and one of the more frequent subjects of litigation are zoning difficulties. To undo the deleterious effects of a U.S. Supreme Court case on religious liberty, Congress passed two pieces of legislation – the well-known Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the lesser-known Religious Use of Land and Institutionalized Persons Act. The latter has become the basis of more frequent suits between churches and municipalities as churches fight to use their land for religious purposes and defend against discriminatory zoning laws.
2. Church plants routinely use borrowed foundational documents. In theory, there is nothing wrong with copying the articles of incorporation and bylaws or constitution of another church for use in a church plant. In practice however, churches must be able to properly use and follow their bylaws. Church bylaws should reflect the vision and mission of the church, which is unique from church to church. Josh Bryant routinely works with churches on writing their bylaws and articles of incorporation to fuel their vision, not work against it.
3. Church plants are wise to launch with solid policies and procedures in place. It is invariably easier to launch with established policies and procedures than to write them when dozens or hundreds of people want to speak into them. Josh Bryant has worked with dozens of churches on getting policies and procedures in place for the first time decades after launching. Many times, they must work through policy and procedure at that time because of an incident that hurt the church – one that could have been avoided with well documented and trained policies and procedures.
4. Church plants do a lot of ministry relative to the number of people attending the church. Outreach, evangelism, events, and programs designed to attract the community to the church are good things. With each event, program, and ministry of the church comes one or more risk vectors with potential liabilities for the church. Food kitchens and pantries could cause food poisoning. Doctors serving in free medical clinics could commit some form of malpractice. Kids jumping on inflatables at block parties can break bones. As a former pastor, Josh Bryant has worked with church plants to conduct these types of events with less risk of liability.
5. Church plants must frequently look to cut costs. Many a church planter knows how necessary it is to operate on a shoestring budget. Josh Bryant has seen church planters successfully obtain property to meet in out of tax or mortgage foreclosure for pennies on the dollar. Then again, he has seen them mess it up and lose everything they invested in a property. There are churches who have navigated the rezoning process alone without incident. Then there are many others who have waited until it is too late to get help and ended up owning property that they could not put a church on.
6. Church plants often rent using leases or landlord-tenant laws that are heavily landlord friendly. Josh Bryant’s own home state is one of those in which landlords have rights but tenants have none. Some of that can be remedied by contract. Some of it, you just have to deal with. Some states are much friendlier to tenants. In any case, commercial lease negotiation and interpretation are not classes taught at most seminaries.
7. Church plants need to make sure they are secure with the IRS well in advance. Depending on the denominational affiliation of the church, churches may need to secure their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Others may be able to rely on a letter ruling granted to the entire denomination. Others may prefer to exist as a church outside of the 501(c) regime and follow the IRS guidelines for exempt but unregistered churches. Either way, churches need legal and accounting counsel to help get them set up. Josh Bryant has secured 501(c) status for several organizations, including many churches.
Church planting is a noble, exciting calling. It is also very exacting and trying at times. Josh Bryant and Church General Counsel are here to help church plants get established. Call us at (866)597-5621 today to get started.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.