by Josh Bryant
In a previous article, I described 5 questions that church leaders need to ask in terms of making a decision that would result in the church being called ethical. In reality, no one church leader makes all the decisions that result in an organization's actions. The Senior Pastor, staff, key lay leaders, other leaders, and volunteers all act in a manner that reflects on the church itself. These actions are the actions of the church as much or more than they are the actions of one person. How then do we restrain the conduct of the organization? In short, a strategic ethics program.
Many would say that the church of all places needs an ethics program the least. Churches don't need policies and procedures because no volunteer would intentionally harm the church or have the authority to do anything that would. Churches don't need to worry about violating obscure laws because churches are "small fish" compared to big corporations. Churches don't need codes of conduct for volunteers because we all follow Christ and will do the right thing.
These statements simply could not be further from the truth. More and more lay counseling programs are popping up that are poorly supervised and trained. Volunteers are operating chainsaws, heavy equipment, and automobiles full of children. Churches aren't so small any more. Mega churches and multisite churches are growing in number, and many times in size. As churches grow, budgets grow. Volunteers will always do the right thing? Tell that to the churches and charities that will lose $5 billion this year alone to fraud and theft. We must lead our churches to be very intentional in structuring the church's conduct. Here are four levels of ethics to strive for, each building on the one before it.
Level 1 Church - Compliance Driven Ethics
At this level, your church's method of ethical behavior is driven by a need to protect the organization. You have policies and procedures in place designed to meet the government's requirements of the church. You have rules and disciplinary procedures for staff members to enforce compliance with your code of conduct. The focus of your ethics program is all about "following the rules."
In some regards, most churches find themselves in this area of the spectrum or below. Far too many churches do not have any policies and procedures. Too many church leaders are completely unaware that their church is violating several laws that could result in serious harm to the church. This state of blissful ignorance has been tolerated and ignored for a long time, but we are starting to see that tolerance end. Churches have control over staff by threats of being fired, but they do not have the same "control" over their volunteers. Most have such a volunteer shortage that they will not fire a volunteer at any cost. In order to fully meet the requirements of even a compliance driven ethics programs, these are areas that the church must address.
Level 2 Church - Risk Driven Ethics
At this level, your church has developed a more sophisticated system for measuring risks and mitigating them. You have resources assigned to tackle them. You have begun to create an ethical culture at the church among staff and volunteers, but your efforts are still very inward focused. The church is more concerned with the effect of the conduct of its employees and volunteers on the church than the effect of that conduct on the outside world. In other words, you're still acting to protect the church.
Very few churches exist at this level. Even those with well developed policy manuals usually do not have a great system of measuring what risk is out there and how to ethically mitigate that risk. Very few churches have an employee with the responsibility of doing so. Very few churches are employing quality risk assumptions and liability waivers that one would expect at this level. Most churches are comfortable either ignoring the issue or simply ensuring staff comply with the rules.
Level 3 Church - Reputation Driven Ethics
At first glance the name of this level sounds prideful and self-centered, but it isn't. We want the church to look good to the outside world. We want what Jesus offers to be attractive without the church making it less attractive.
At this level, the church is paying attention to the ramifications of its decisions on the world around it - those directly impacted by its actions. Instead of a tyrant enforcing policy on staff, the church pays attention to what would make their lives better. The church focuses on how it can make its members and guests lives better. When the church is concerned about its reputation - not pridefully but for the cause of Christ - its relationships with employees, volunteers, members, and guests grow stronger. Employees and volunteers are more productive. More members volunteer.
I can hear you already - "we are focused on a lot of these things." There are many churches who do very well meeting ethical obligations at this level. But statistics show that most church staff are still severely under paid. We are concerned with providing a great worship experience and spiritual growth for our members and guests, but people are coming less frequently. These are our goals, there is just no ethics program attached to them. There is nothing that governs the church's conduct to make sure this happens. There are no policies and procedures governing parking lot greeters or the process by which a guest speaker is vetted and approved. Furthermore, all of this is built on a foundation that is crumbling at best. Each level builds on the previous one, so if we do not fix those problems, we could very easily find the comfy chair of our laurels that we are resting in get kicked out from underneath us by a litigious, hostile world.
Level 4 Church - Culture Driven Ethics
At this level, your church is adding value to its community and to other churches. Your church is considering future generations and people who have not yet been born who will worship at your church decades from now. Some believe that to reach this level your church must be concerned with its environment through recycling programs, clean energy usage, carbon footprints and more. None of these concerns are bad or unbiblical, even if you do not believe in global warming (I offer no opinion on the subject). Your community not only benefits from your church, it trusts your church. As a result, your church's conduct optimally achieves its mission.
Here you have policies and procedures for the entire church. Every operation is performed within the same parameters every time. As such, the community begins to rely on and trust those operations. The chances of variable conduct derailing the train and causing a legal disaster are minimized. You have a code of ethics that is part of your DNA. You talk about it, teach it, publish it, and live it. Your church's conduct is intentionally designed to bring value to the Kingdom of God, to do everything it is obliged to do, to take care and shepherd those God has entrusted to it, to fulfill the Great Commission, and to be a trusted and valuable member of society. This is the kind of church ethics program we should strive for.
by Josh Bryant
People talk an awful lot about business ethics. Not as many talk about church ethics. It's a bit silly to argue that businesses are moral actors but churches are not. So why aren't we talking more about church ethics? Here are 5 ethical questions church leaders should be asking about every decision.
1. What would God want?
Call me Captain Obvious. In business ethics, one of the questions in ethical decision making is "what brings the most value to the owner of the business?" This is the classical theory of business ethics. Jesus is the head of the body, the church. We who are in it have been bought with a price. He owns it all! So naturally, we must make decisions based upon what would bring the most benefit to him.
Not so fast. It's easy to say that, but we don't have to look too hard to see churches neglecting this necessary question. Would God want us sweeping sexual assault claims under the rug? Would He want us quietly dismissing pastors who abuse children without saying more? Would He want us to be unwelcoming to someone who has a different color skin or dresses differently than us? Of course not. If churches are going to make ethical decisions, we need to follow the advice of Oscar Hammerstein and "start at the very beginning, a very good place to start."
2. What agreements are relevant to this decision?
Another theory of business ethics is the contract theory. In essence, ethical decisions are those which keep all of our agreements; unethical decisions violate an agreement. On its face this seems ridiculous for the church, but let's dig a little deeper. Have we made agreements with God? Is the church not in covenant with Him? Have we not pledged fidelity to Christ such that as Cyprian said, "The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure" and He fidelity to us when he said "I will be with you always"?
Have we made agreements with each other? In a global context we cannot choose fellow believers any more than we get to choose our brothers and sisters. However, we do make agreements in the local context. Each local church is built upon a set of collective agreed upon beliefs and practices. I've heard a story of when new members wanted to change the fundamental character of a local church, to which the pastor replied, "we did not join you, you joined us."
We must ask what we have decided together to believe. What is it that we practice fundamentally? What decision best benefits the body of Christ in this local context? What agreements have we made with our neighbors, vendors, suppliers, service providers, communities, and others? What decision affects those agreements most beneficially? These are the questions this theory uses to ascertain right and wrong, and it is not completely inapplicable to the church.
3. Who is affected by this decision?
This question addresses the stakeholder theory of organizational ethics. In any decision that the church makes, there will be groups of stakeholders that are affected. Who are the stakeholders? Every individual person in the church is an individual stakeholder. You can organize them in many different ways. We tend to organize people by gender, age, and ministry (i.e. women's ministry, young adult's class, choir, etc.).
We cannot just stop with our church though. There are stakeholder groups in the community - the lost, those who depend on the church's food pantry, those who own or use property surrounding our church, and state and local governments. In some situations, local law enforcement may be a stakeholder (i.e. church security). In other situations, a youth group that you haven't even heard of yet may be stakeholders who call and ask for a place to serve on a short term missions trip. Your association and network of churches are stakeholders. As church leaders run down this list of stakeholders, they must determine how a decision affects these stakeholders.
4. What advances the gospel?
This is another question that seems so obvious it is hardly worth mentioning, but it is probably one of the most important. The agency theory of organizational ethics determines a course of action as ethical based on whether it helps or hinders the purpose of the organization. The decision that advances the gospel, promotes worship and fellowship, and secures spiritual growth and service opportunities for guests and members is the most ethical decision to make.
It is easy for churches to be short-sighted when answering this question. Some would argue that an incident of abuse must be kept quiet because for that to become public would hinder the gospel. I counter that when the allegation comes out (as it invariably will), the fact that the church swept it under a rug will harm the church far more than had they dealt with it at the time.
5. What makes our church a good citizen?
This one tends to be a bit more controversial. When people start discussing questions of good citizenship things can sometimes devolve into a political discussion. Some will say that the church has a moral obligation under the citizen theory to be environmentally friendly while others would argue the opposite. But this question is a bit more complicated than that.
Is your church part of an organization or network of churches? If so, how would this decision affect that network? Does your church impact your community? If so, how would this decision have a positive impact? How would this decision affect our standing with our community, state, and national leaders? Does it submit to their authority or is it rebellious? Do our policies obey the law? These are all questions that must be considered when making an ethical decision.
A question I routinely get is, "what if the answers to these questions point to different conclusions?" My response will typically be, "Are you sure they do?" Most of the time, these questions will all point in the same direction. However, if the decision is to obey an order of the government to stop preaching on Sunday mornings, obviously it appears that the citizen theory conflicts with the agency and classical theories at least. One way to overcome the problem is to ask, "would we really be a good citizen by ceasing to preach the gospel?" My answer would be a resounding "no." Another way to overcome it is as James and Peter did - let the government decide whether it is right obey it over God, but we cannot help but preach Jesus. Lastly, we need to understand that even in the easiest of analyses that we are guided by the Holy Spirit. A set of five questions cannot put Him in a formulaic box. He is God. We must be guided by His Spirit to make good decisions.
For the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we recommend you take a look at the following books, especially The Gospel & Racial Discrimination by Russell Moore.
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.