Several years ago a church in Texas ran into some trouble when a man wanted to sue the church. The problem, however, was that the church was not incorporated, and so it could not be sued. Instead, he filed a class action lawsuit against every member of the church. Could he sue every member? Does the law allow members to be sued personally? The court that heard the case stated, "An unincorporated association is a voluntary group of persons, without a charter, formed by mutual consent for the purposes of promoting a common enterprise." The court also stated, "Members of an unincorporated association are individually liable for tortious acts of agents or employees of the association if the tort is committed within the scope of their authority" (Hutchins v. Grace Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church).
Unincorporated churches with voting members are most at risk
This court case brings up something that ought to make its members think twice about their legal status as a church. There are many churches that have voting members who vote on many issues such as salaries, purchase contracts, and other important things like real estate transactions and lease agreements. In essence, when members of the unincorporated church vote on a particular item, they are taking upon themselves potential personal liability because they become a direct personal party to the contract or transaction. This could bring disastrous results.
In the case of the church in Texas, the court stated that the " . . . members of an unincorporated association are individually liable for tortituous acts of agents or employees of the association if the tort is committed within the scope of their authority.” However, the appeals court remanded the case back to the trail court because the plaintiff committed a procedural error in filing her paperwork and claim with the court seeking class action; one that could be easily fixed. The point we must not miss is that, the court made it very clear that the members of an unincorporated church could be sued personally for the tortiuous acts of its " . . . agents or employees of the association if the tort is committed within the scope of their authority.”
One of the first acts of a church
Incorporating ought to be one of the first acts of any church. In 2010, approximately 1,000 churches per month were sued. That number is likely to keep rising because today, many churches are starting in homes, hotel conference rooms, and schools, which means they have to sign more contracts and enter into unusual contracts. It is important to ensure that your church forms a legal structure to protect its members, board, and trustees. As mentioned before, incorporating should be done before conducting your first service.
What happens when you incorporate your church?
The legal concept of an artificial person exists where state law has created laws recognizing a corporation. The laws of all fifty states allow churches to create a corporation that exists separate from that of its members, officers, and board. The church uses the corporation to conduct its business and manage its assets.
What is indemnification?
When a church forms a corporation, it receives special power to indemnify its pastors, board members, and employees from liability for the action they take in behalf of the church. This allows one to serve on the board with the confidence of knowing that the acts he/she performs in behalf of the church will not come back to haunt him/her.
Where is your church?
Right now, there are many churches operating on a deficient legal foundation. Most pastors I have met state that from the first day they started their church, they had always intended on doing things the right way, but then ministry, preaching, and life got in the way. That does not have to be you. Today is the best day to start getting right.