God has moved His church in recent years to really focus on developing church leaders who love Him immensely and know how to influence others to move the church towards executing its mission of reaching the lost. He's taking it a step further to develop lay leaders in the church who are leaders in their homes, communities, governments, and businesses and can influence others in those contexts for Christ. Now as a matter of necessity, the Church needs leaders who can simplify the complex interaction between the spiritual we learned in seminary and the law governing organizations that most of us did not. Here are three principles church leaders should know in our legal environment.
1. Good leaders Govern.
If you cringed reading those three words, you're not alone. I cringed writing them. But by definition, leadership (the action of leading a group of people or an organization) requires governance (the manner of conducting the actions, affairs, and policies of an organization or group of people). Do you see the difference, but synergy between the two?
Leadership is what we do. We rally the saints for worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism. We build consensus among the saints about the priorities and activities of the church. Leaders motivate. Leaders inspire. Leaders build relationships with people who so are inspired and motivated by the leader's vision that not only will they follow the leader, but they'll lead others to follow too. Then what?
Our organizations - our groups of called out people (ekklesia) - must act. They must carry on day-to-day affairs with the overarching goal to obey the command of Christ to spread His gospel from the pulpit to the farthest reaches of our planet. Leadership is what we do, governance is how we do it.
God established the instruments of church leadership and governance in Scripture - pastors (poimen), elders (presbuteros), and overseers (episkopos). Hermeneutically, how do we apply this as laid out in the historical context of Paul's writings to the Ephesians, Timothy and Titus to our current context? How do we submit to the authority of Scripture and the authority of the rule of law? The answer is deceptively simple.
2. Good governance requires law.
The church is to be in the world but not of it, so we still must operate within its various constructs. The American legal construct is becoming more complex by the day. Churches are finding themselves more taxed than ever. The rules around how you provide employee parking could subject your church or its staff to a tax. The rules about revenue streams other than charitable donations are complex and being enforced more stringently all the time (even by sympathetic administrations). Courts are side stepping First Amendment claims that the government has no business in a church's selection of its clergy relying on business law principles to force the church's hand in some employment cases. If good leaders govern and good governance requires law, good leaders know law.
Of course, the word law has multiple meanings. There are tax laws, employment laws, safety laws, property laws, zoning laws, laws governing the duties we owe to one another (torts), contract laws, criminal laws - all of which affect the church in some way. But there are also laws of church growth, laws of evangelism, laws of discipleship, laws of worship, laws of fellowship, laws of service, laws of ministry - timeless principles in Scripture that give the church its mission and function in the Kingdom. There are laws of men and laws of God. As long as the two do not conflict they must guide what we do. The question is, how are we going to do that? Again, the answer is deceptively simple.
3. Good leaders govern with words.
Write it down. Sounds simple, right? As with just about everything in life, it is easier said than done. Nevertheless, we must do hard things for the cause of Christ if those things will make our churches more secure, effective, and efficient. Writing down how your church is going to carry out an action does all three.
Let's take hiring a youth pastor as an example. You've heeded the advice of this blog and sat down in your office to write down how you are going to do that. The first thing on your list - write a job advertisement. Next, publish the advertisement. Third, receive resumes. Fourth, review resumes. Fifth, throw away 95% of them. And so forth and so on. Done. Right?
Not quite. You've engaged in leadership - you've written down what the church is going to do. But you've not engaged in governance - how you're going to do it. Have you decided how much to pay the new youth minister? Have you considered the Equal Pay Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and other laws of men that affect that decision? Have you considered the biblical description of who fills the pastoral office and how the office must be filled? How will your church meet all of these requirements?
The laws of men and laws of God weigh on how you hire; they speak to how you govern. What you write down are policies and procedures. They should provide two guardrails on either side of your church's path that provide security. One guardrail stops your church from doing anything illegal under the laws of men, the other stops your church from doing anything unbiblical under the laws of God. The guardrails are the governance. The path in between and the ultimate destination? That's leadership.
Writing it down also makes your church more effective. You can look back at how your church hired a youth minister and take note of the stick points - those areas in the process that created difficulty and can be improved upon so that when it's time to hire a music minister you have a better job description, a better candidate pool, and ultimately a person in the job that fits your church's culture.
Writing it down makes your church more efficient. Most of the time, one person is not solely responsible for the hiring process. Others in the church may participate in the interview process. Others still need to know how to collect documents that comply with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the Internal Revenue Code, and other state and federal laws. When you write down how to hire and teach it to everyone involved, that education combined with experience creates efficiency.
I believe every church can be more secure, effective, and efficient by leveraging the laws of men to obey the laws of God. I hope this has helped you lead your church in some small way for His fame and glory.
Articles of Incorporation (we’ll call them AOIs from here on out) are found in a written document filed usually with the Secretary of State in the state in which a church exists that form that church as a legal entity in the eyes of the world. Banks will usually require a copy of the AOIs before letting your church open a bank account so that they can verify that this organization is real. There are several components that should be in your AOIs. Because they are so basic, they do not usually change. This is unlike your bylaws, which are more detailed and therefore more open to change. Here are just a few of the things that need to be in most AOIs.
Name of the Church
The AOIs will first state the name of your church. The articles will tell the world – the government, banks, vendors, members, and the like – the name of the organization they are interacting with. If you’re launching a new church, then obviously you’ll need to have the name of your church firmed up before filing the AOIs. If your church changes its name, the official means of doing so is through amending the AOIs.
Period of Existence
Your AOIs will tell the world how long the church will exist. Very rarely would any organization want to put an expiration date on their endeavor, and certainly not the church. While eternity is not in the government’s vocabulary in terms of AOIs, most organizations indicate in this section that the organization will exist into perpetuity.
There are two primary components of the character of a non-profit organization that should be in your church’s AOIs. The first is a prohibition against "private inurement." This is tax prohibition based on the notion that if the government is not going to tax the organization, the organization’s receipts over budgeted expenditures cannot flow to a private person. The second component deals with what happens to the assets of a non-profit organization if that organization closes its doors. While we don’t want churches closing their doors, statistics show this is becoming a much more common occurrence. Tax law prohibits the assets of a non-profit from going to a for profit endeavor or a private party, so specific language is necessary to ensure that non-profit assets go to a similar non-profit endeavor on dissolution.
Your church’s AOIs should tell the world not only who they are interacting with, but where they can interact with your church. Your AOIs should clearly state the address of the church’s primary location. This can be difficult for church plants. I know of some church planters in very difficult locales within the United States that have to move frequently. The principal address should be updated with each move. House churches may not meet in the same house every week. In that case, one location should be designated the principal address.
Your church’s AOIs should also tell the world who has the authority to accept service of process in the event they need to sue your church. The registered agent is the person or entity that can accept the complaint filed against your church and the summons directing it to file an answer or be subject to a default judgment. Some churches designate a trustee as their registered agent. A volunteer should never be the registered agent. Too much is at stake. Many churches designate a pastor as the registered agent, but the church must remember to amend their AOIs if the pastor resigns or retires. In the business world, most reputable companies hire a registered agent that is an independent third party or the church’s lawyer. This is probably the best practice for churches too.
The last component of your church’s AOIs is a statement of basic governance. Is your church governed by an elder board or is it more congregational? Or is there a diocese or other office that your church reports to? The world needs to know all of these things, the specifics of which will be spelled out in your bylaws. It suffices to have a simple, one sentence statement of how your church will be governed in the AOIs.
One of the first things we look for at Church General Counsel when we take on a new client is the church's articles of incorporation. We can recommend a variety of changes to the church's articles if any are needed. We can serve as your church's registered agent for no additional fee.
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.