12 Apr 2016

Are The Pastor's Personal Opinions Legal?

Raul Rivera

Many pastors today take advantage of having a personal blog. For most pastors, it is a way to stay connected with their congregation during the week. Congregants, as they enter the church on Sunday morning, often feel as though they have already connected with the pastor because of the blog.

There are numerous reasons for pastors to blog; some may use it as a way to continue the conversation of the previous week’s sermon, some may use it as a tool to share their thoughts and opinions on various matters, and others may use it as a vehicle to reach people around the world. But, the million-dollar question that must be addressed is, “What are the circumstances that every pastor should consider if he has a blog or is considering starting a blog?”

The pastor’s blog

In general, the pastor’s blog in and of itself is not the issue. It is the church’s website that can be out of compliance if the pastor’s blog is supported by the church and linked to its website. However, the facts and circumstances of how the blog was created and how it is operated must be taken into account. Let us look at a couple of examples to help bring clarity.

Example 1: A church-sanctioned pastor’s blog

Pastor Smith of Church ABC recently started a personal blog that is supported by the church. The church developed the blog, and there is a link to the blog on the church’s website. The blog has the church’s logo and is clearly established as a church-sponsored activity. In several blogs, Pastor Smith decides to advertise and sell some of his own personal sermon series. He is thankful because the sales of the sermons, though small, bring additional income to supplement his modest salary from the church.

Is this compliant? Is Pastor Smith violating any federal laws? If so, what makes his blog noncompliant? Let us examine this first example.

Since Church ABC endorses Pastor Smith’s personal blog, it is considered a church-sponsored event and is subject to all requirements of tax-exempt organizations. Because Pastor Smith advertised and sold several personal sermon series that went directly to his own benefit, he and the church are in violation of private inurement under section 4958. If the church sanctions, or endorses, the pastor’s personal blog as a church-sponsored activity, then that blog cannot in any way engage in an activity that financially benefits the pastor or his family.

Example 2: A pastor’s blog endorsing a political candidate

Each week, Pastor Harris uses his blog to express many of his thoughts on various religious, social, and cultural topics. His blog is read by roughly 90% of his church members. He even has several thousand readers from across the nation and around the globe. On the home page of his blog, it clearly states that he is the pastor of Church XYZ and that the views presented on his blog are his personal thoughts and opinions, not those of the church, board members of the church, or church staff. Being an election year, Pastor Harris has used his blog to express his thoughts on particular candidates and whom he endorses for office. In these particular blog posts, Pastor Harris encourages his readers to vote for a certain candidate.

Is Pastor Harris’ blog violating section 501(c)(3), which prohibits such charitable organizations (churches included) from endorsing a political candidate or from intervening in a political campaign? Let us examine this second example.

Many pastors have strong, personal convictions of candidates running for political office. Being that 2016 is an election year, many pastors will feel the need to make their political opinions known. Since many important issues will be addressed in this next election, most pastors find it necessary to express their political opinions that are based upon their Judeo-Christian beliefs. The fact, however, is that current legislation prohibits tax-exempt funds, such as those of a church, to be used to intervene in or influence a political campaign.

Therefore, if you desire to make your political opinions known, a personal blog may be the best way to do so. However, certain measures must be taken to ensure that it does not violate any provisions of the law and bring negative consequences to both you and your church. (For more information on churches and political campaign intervention, please click here.)

Because Pastor Harris’ blog is not specifically sanctioned by the church, his blog does not violate any restrictions on political campaign intervention because the blog is clearly his own. Although roughly 90% of the church members read his blog, he never used any church funds or linked it to his church’s website.

Although this post is using the example of a pastor's blog, much of this information also pertains to podcasts and/or social media postings. The important factor is determining whether or not the blog, podcast, or social media posting is church sanctioned action or a strictly personal action.

Next, let us examine some measures you should take to ensure that your blog remains compliant.

How to make your blog compliant

In order for your personal blog, as a pastor, to be compliant according to section 501(c)(3), certain measures must be taken. Below are 4 measures to consider concerning your personal blog.

4 measures to consider

1. Decide the purpose of the blog: 
Decide ahead of time what the intent or purpose will be for the blog. Will it be used for further thoughts and commentary on the previous week’s sermon? Will it be used to address cultural, social, and political issues? Deciding the purpose before beginning the blog is an important first step.

2. Will it be a church-sanctioned blog?:
If yes, then know that all thoughts expressed by the pastor directly correlate as an expression of the church. If no, then it would be a good idea to include a disclaimer stating that all thoughts and opinions expressed are solely the thoughts and opinions of the pastor.

3. Will you use it to advertise and/or sell any material for your own support?:
As we saw in the previous example, income directly received by the pastor from a church-sanctioned blog is subject to private inurement. If you would like to have the option to sell personal sermon series via the blog, then it would be best if the blog was not church-sanctioned.

4. Will any political intervention take place?:
As previously mentioned, political intervention is strictly prohibited for any tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. The important fact to remember is that if the pastor’s blog is church-sanctioned, then the direct correlation to the church limits what can be expressed, such as the endorsing of a political candidate.

Ministry is changing fast . . . do not get left behind

We live in a fast paced world and this fact can, at times, be overwhelming. The same is true in the world of ministry today. The way things were once done just a few years ago most likely cannot be done the same way today. Who would have ever thought that there are compliance matters to be mindful of in regards to the pastor’s personal blog?

But do not be discouraged! If you are not yet doing so, I want to encourage you to give blogging a try. Your personal blog as a pastor is a great way to remain relevant in the lives of your church members outside of Sunday morning worship.

Furthermore, because the world of ministry is changing so fast, I want to invite you to spend the day with us at one of our Ultimate Church Structure Conferences. During this day, we discuss some of the latest trends in the world of church compliance, but more so than that, we empower you with the necessary strategies to protect the dream and vision that God has given you for your ministry.

Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Blessings,
Raul Rivera

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