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Avoid These Common Pastoral Mistakes

By Raul Rivera

“How did we get here?” was the question Tom found himself struggling to answer. As the executive pastor of a growing church, Tom was unprepared for this terrible turn of events. The church had begun with a few families whose vision was to heal and mend both physical and spiritual needs, and to restore people to their calling in God. They were filled with excitement and zeal when they launched, and they all did the best they knew how, but it took time to learn the ins and outs of managing services, ministry teams, finances, and other administrative tasks.

All seemed to be progressing well, until a recent discovery changed everything. To their shock and dismay, they learned that a trusted staff member who had been with the church from the start had been stealing money from the offering for over two years! He was responsible for counting the weekly offering and, on occasion, counted it alone when enough volunteers were not available. The thought that this particular member would do such a thing had never even crossed the minds of church leaders.

To make matters worse, the member—offended at being ousted— began to defame the pastor, which produced more confusion as some church members believed the accusations and soon thereafter, began to call for the pastor’s removal. In reviewing the church’s bylaws, the pastor and other church leaders realized that there was nothing to prevent this from happening.

Shaky foundations

This story is one that has been told time and time again by pastors all over the country. A church begins with great spiritual fervor, and while membership grows and lives are changed, other responsibilities such as managing administrative tasks, updating bylaws, maintaining board meeting minutes, and setting up protective policies for the ministry fall by the wayside...until things go wrong.

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There are several “traps” churches should be aware of, because it only takes the snares of one trap to cause substantial trouble for a church. I do have good news for you, though! You can arm yourself with the knowledge to recognize these traps, and the dangers thereof, before they can have a disastrous affect on your ministry.

Fight the "as we grow" mentality

For many leaders, the "as we grow" mentality is a detriment instead of a help. I hear many ministers say to me, "We know that we do not have it "RIGHT", but as we grow, the Lord will provide for us people to fill in the gaps." 

The problem with that mentality is that one believes that growth will cause things to fall into place. The exact opposite is true. Growth will not come unless certain things are already in place. Intentional and focused leadership creates a sustainable environment of growth. Let me explain.

Two areas of compliance

Intentional leadership recognizes two main areas of compliance that foster growth.  Understanding them will give you clarity.

Growth will not come unless certain things are already in place.

1. Compliance with God's government:

Compliance in this area means that you spend blocks of time each week knowing the Word and how God governs His Kingdom. You cannot have a kingdom without government, and in order to operate in His government, you will have to be compliant with His laws and statutes. 

In Jeremiah 31:31 (also referenced in Hebrews 8), the Lord promised to give us His laws and to write them on our hearts. Many ministers today spend less time reading the Word, and as a result, lose the deep sense of conviction for truth required to lead a congregation.

2. Compliance with man's government: 

Compliance in this area requires that you become sufficiently knowledgeable of the laws that govern your ministry to be able to make wise decisions as to when to do something in house and when to seek professional help. 

While ministers often emphasize compliance with God's Word, they tend to disregard compliance with man's laws simply because they disagree with some of the laws passed by men. The deception in that is that we think God is OK with it, when in fact, the degree that you are compliant with man's laws is the degree that God will entrust you to lead His sheep. It is also the degree to which men believe you to be legitimate. It is tough following a pastor with financial and tax trouble.

3 pastoral pitfalls

Next, let us review a few of the most common compliance issues ministries face and how you can address them. This list is not exhaustive, but it is a good starting point to strengthen your church’s legal foundation.

1. No plan of succession

Some pastors assume that they will always be the leader of the church they founded. They tend to think that by virtue of their office, they will always be the leader of the church. However, that is not necessarily true. A church founder, like anyone else that succeeds someone in a position, only has the authority to perform the duties assigned to him in the articles of incorporation, the church bylaws, or the employment contract.

These are legally binding documents that establish the legal structure of the corporation. Succession language is most commonly found in the bylaws. Not only detailing the succession, but establishing an accountability board will help protect the pastor from being removed from office.

2. Lack of financial accountability

As seen in the opening story above, financial accountability can help prevent many issues before they have a chance to start. Stealing money is not always the issue, but it can also be small things, such as not having receipts to validate purchases or giving reimbursements without proper documentation.

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Establishing policies, like a purchase authorization policy, benevolence policy, and reimbursement policy, can help your church ensure that all funds are being properly spent. Furthermore, implementing such policies will help you to maintain compliance with IRS regulations pertaining to certain financial situations.

Choosing not to establish these policies now will most likely not hurt your church in the immediate future. But should a church employee or member be personally audited, you would not want any improper reimbursements or donor receipts to bring any unwanted IRS attention to your church.

3. Mishandled donated property

A lesser known, but very important area of compliance is the management of donated property. Most nonprofits have a basic understanding of managing cash donations. However, knowing how to properly handle non-cash donations becomes a little murky for many churches.

Financial accountability can help prevent many issues before they have a chance to start.

Donated property is treated differently than cash donations. Some nonprofits make the mistake of assigning a value to the items donated to their ministries. Such practice, however, is not permitted by the IRS.

In essence, a letter, known as a contemporaneous written agreement, should be issued stating the purpose of the non-cash donation, and how it can be used for ministry purposes. A value cannot be assigned to the donation. That responsibility lies with the donor. For more information on properly handling non-cash donations, check out our three-part blog series by clicking here.

Do not take chances

In the end, Pastor Tom and his church were able to weather the storm. Through prayer and sound counsel, they were able to show the church Pastor Tom’s integrity. Their financial policies were in order, their bylaws fortified, and they continued their journey of fortifying the spiritual and legal foundation of the ministry.

You do not have to stay in the dark about whether or not your ministry is protected and has a sure foundation. Rather than waiting to see what happens, be proactive, and take steps to review your legal foundation now and to set in place the right documents and procedures to keep your ministry running healthy and protected.

Consider attending one of our Ultimate Church Structure Conferences to bring a new level of vision and solidity to your ministry.

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