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07 Feb 2017

Are You Sure Your Ordination is Legal?

Raul Rivera

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 there. Later on, the engaged couple moved from Michigan to Ohio. They asked Pastor Charles to sign their marriage license and officiate their wedding in Ohio. 

A little history about Pastor Charles

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. 

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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. 

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." 

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

  • “Do not start the church too close to mine.”
  • “Do not tell anyone from my church that you are starting a church.”
  • “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: Five Things to Know Before Signing a Lease) 

The wedding in Ohio

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 because 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?”

Can an ordination be revoked?

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. Fortunately, the law provides a solution for ministers who find themselves without a valid ordination. Here is some encouraging news:

  1. When done correctly, a minister that starts a new church can be ordained through the church that he/she has established.
  2. We have identified 10 important criteria that must be met in order for an ordination to be valid. (We discuss those 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”)

Pastor Charles found an answer

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, he went through our entire StartRIGHT® Program to set up the legal structure of his church. 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. 

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Also, through our Minister’s Suite, he was informed of one important detail that spared him potential jail time. He learned that Ohio’s revised code provides 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. 

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

Sometimes, the problems we face actually serve as a catalyst to get us moving in the right direction.

5 important facts about ordination

Let me share with you some important facts concerning the ordination of ministers.

  1. You do not need to be ordained in order to start a church.
  2. After starting a church, the founder can be legally ordained through a properly adopted resolution of its board of directors (elders or trustees).
  3. Once ordained does not mean that you will always be ordained. A church can revoke your ordination. Also, if the church that ordained you ceases to exist, your ordination is no longer valid.
  4. The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling on January 12, 2012 that broadened the definition of a minister, which is good news. (See Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012))
  5. There is no law or regulation that prohibits an ordained minister from freely preaching the gospel.

Are you sure your ordination is legal?

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 doubts about the validity of your ordination, give us a call at 877-494-4655, or consider attending one of our Ultimate Church Structure Conferences. You will not be disappointed!

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Raul Rivera

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About the Author

Church Planter. Speaker. Author. CEO. Raul Rivera has had ample experience in the church planting world. His current venture, StartCHURCH, has helped 1000's of churches to start right. Raul has compiled an array of manuals and software tools that help churches stay compliant with the IRS. He also hosts over 35 national conferences per year, training pastors on how to launch their churches. Raul is married to his wife Genel, and they and their five children live in Atlanta, GA.