Are You Sure Your Ordination is Legal?

Written by Raul Rivera on Feb 08, 2018 in Pastoral Helps

Being an ordained minister has its privileges. There is the obvious privilege of preaching and teaching the gospel that ultimately leads to lives being changed for all eternity.

But there are other privileges that can only come from being legally ordained. Such privileges of legal ordination include certain tax benefits, such as a housing allowance, and the ability to conduct and solemnize marriages.

The subject of legal ordination is always a “hot topic” of conversation at our conferences, and we almost always get the question from a pastor in attendance, “How can I be certain I am legally ordained?”

I want to provide you with the answer to this question in the blog, but before I do, I want to share with you one pastor’s story that will help emphasize the importance of legal ordination. 

An all too common story for many pastors

Pastor Charles had served in his church for as long as he could remember. He had worked in nearly every ministry department and served on every committee. From a young age, he felt an undeniable call to ministry.

When the opportunity arose for him to become licensed as a minister, he was ecstatic. His pastor of 17 years performed an ordination ceremony before the entire congregation and issued him a ministerial license. 

Shortly thereafter, Pastor Charles told his pastor that he had a desire to lead a church of his own.

He felt the Lord was going to open a door for him to start a church soon. Pastor Charles detected a less than celebratory reaction from his pastor.

After a year of prayer and several conversations with his pastor about planting a church, Pastor Charles asked his pastor for help with the new venture.

He wanted to go through a twenty-week launch program, designed to prepare him for a departure, with his pastor’s blessing. 

His pastor's only reply was, "You are not ready." 

Pastor Charles decided that he would wait nine more months before asking his pastor again. In the meantime, the relationship with his pastor seemed to deteriorate. 

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Pastor Charles steps out in faith despite discouragement

Nine months after their last conversation, Pastor Charles approached his pastor again seeking his support for the call that he felt to plant a church. His pastor was unwilling to give his blessing. 

Pastor Charles responded, "I am so convinced the Lord has put this new church on my heart that I feel compelled to move, with or without your blessing." 

His pastor replied with what he called “advice,” but which seemed more like a warning:

  1. “Do not start the church too close to mine.”
  2. “Do not tell anyone from my church that you are starting a church.”
  3. “If anyone from my church follows you, send him or her back.”

Although discouraged from his pastor’s response, Pastor Charles was still determined.

Pastor Charles set out to establish his own church in a neighboring town (only fifteen miles from his former church). Even though he would have loved to receive his pastor's blessing, he knew the time had come to part ways and follow the call in his heart. 

The Lord’s favor was upon the new church. One year into the launch, the church had 60 members and signed a lease to move into a new storefront location.

(Recommended reading: "5 Things Your Church Needs to Know About Leases")

An invitation to perform a wedding

Pastor Charles felt honored when he was asked to perform a wedding, especially since the bride and groom were his longtime childhood friends.

They had all grown up together in the same Michigan town and attended the same church.

The engaged couple moved from Michigan to Ohio and they asked Pastor Charles to officiate their wedding in Ohio and sign their marriage certificate.

The wedding was only six weeks away when Pastor Charles received a call from a friend. 

The friend reported that Pastor Charles's former pastor had heard about the upcoming wedding and questioned how the young pastor would be able to perform a wedding since he had revoked Pastor Charles's ordination.

The news shocked Pastor Charles, and it also raised some serious questions: 

  • “Can an ordination be revoked?” 
  • “Am I no longer considered an ordained minister?” 
  • “Where can I get ordained in six weeks to perform the upcoming wedding?”

Many pastors are in the same boat

Like Pastor Charles, thousands of pastors face similar circumstances. Oftentimes, pastors feel alone and do not know where to turn. Thankfully, the law provides a solution for ministers who find themselves without a valid ordination. Here is some encouraging news:

  1. When done correctly, when a minister starts a new church he/she can be ordained through the church they started.
  2. We have identified 10 important criteria that must be met in order for an ordination to be valid. (We discuss those criteria at all of our conferences.)
  3. The laws of all fifty states recognize ordinations across state lines.

(Recommended reading: “10 Simple Steps to Ensure Legal Ordination”)

A solution to Pastor Charles’s dilemma

Sometimes, the problems we face actually serve as a catalyst to get us moving in the right direction. Pastor Charles began to search for an answer. When he saw that we were hosting a conference near his hometown, he immediately registered to attend. 

At our conference, he learned more about legal compliance of churches than he had ever anticipated. Afterward, his church went through our entire StartRIGHT® Program to set up its legal foundation.

Everything was set in place, from the creation of incorporation and bylaws documents to the application for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt approval and the establishment of an ordination program that met all 10 requirements. 

Also, through one of our online resources, he was informed of one important detail that spared him potential jail time. 

Pastor Charles learned that Ohio’s revised code issues a fine of five hundred dollars and imprisonment up to six months if someone performs a wedding in Ohio without first obtaining a special state-issued permit to solemnize marriages. 

Within six weeks he was ordained through his newly established church, and he had obtained a license to solemnize marriages in Ohio.

Ensuring you have a legal ordination

If you are considering starting a church, or have already planted one, it is crucial that the language is right in your corporate documents. Many churches never consider the quality of their foundational corporate documents.

As a result, some pastors later discover that there are deficiencies that call into question the validity of their ordinations.

If you have any questions about the validity of your ordination or your church’s legal foundation, give us a call at 877-494-4655, or consider attending one of our Ultimate Church Structure Conferences.

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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.

Raul Rivera

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