14 Oct 2013

Start a Church, Then Get Ordained

Founder Raul Rivera

The tears rolled down his cheeks as he told me his story at a conference in Boston.  In 1987, he and his wife started a church in their own house.  For the first 4 years, the church floundered each year and they did not know month to month whether they would continue to keep it open.  Then in the fifth year, things changed.  It was not because of anything special that they did; nor was it because of any programs that they implemented.  He recalls that one Sunday, 12 new people came and then the next Sunday, another 10...then 20 more the following week...and within two years the church was running 400.  For 25 years he and his wife faithfully labored for the church.  They reminisced the countless lives that were impacted by the church.  It had been a good run, and now they were in tears over the loss of the church they founded.  A few months previous, the newly elected board of directors had voted them out of the church, with without cause.

Your church government matters

When they started the church, he and his wife were part of a church denomination that had a government structure where the congregation voted in the board of elders/directors and in turn, the board of elders/directors had the power to hire or fire the pastor with or without cause. In 1997, the church decided to exit the denomination and become an independent, non-denominational church.  As part of exiting the denomination, the church had to create new bylaws.  Not having much experience in the matter, the new bylaws were almost identical to the previous ones.  They chose a government structure that was identical to the one they had left.  Therefore, every two years the church went through the uncomfortable (somewhat politically driven) process of electing new board members.  Though the pastor did not like the process, he learned to live with it...that is, until last year, when the new board (by a 3-2 vote) decided to terminate his employment without cause and revoke his ordination.   He knew God had called him to the city of Hartford, CT, but he did not know what to do.  Since he was no longer ordained, how could he do it?  There he was, at our Ultimate Church Structure Conference, asking me what he should do. 

Starting a church and then getting ordained

There is a common misunderstanding among many church leaders and those called to plant a churchMany believe that one can plant a church only if they have been ordained or licensed as a minister of the gospel.  However, that is not true.  In fact, one can start a church, establish it on a solid legal foundation, and then become ordained right through the very church he/she has started.  The ordination he/she gets from the newly started church is just as valid as if the individual was ordained after attending a four-year Bible college. 

Can I really become ordained through the church I start?

In defining who qualifies as a minister, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in January 2012, "It is impermissible for the government to contradict a church's determination of who can act as its minister."  The court was also careful to state that just because a church ordains you, does not mean that the state will automatically recognize it either.  So, in defining a minister the court relied upon many facts and circumstances and refused "to adopt a rigid formula for deciding . . ." when a person . . . "qualifies as a minister."  In another federal court case, Cramer v. Commonwealth, 202 S.E.2d 911, the court ruled that the  "selection or election must be a considered, deliberate, and responsible act."  The court looked for a process that was in writing and which required a minister to be someone specially selected through a formal process that scrutinized him/her and granted him/her authority to perform the normal duties of an ordained minister.  The court further made a point to clarify that the state couldn't give unconstitutional preference to a more established church/denomination over a newly established small church.  As long as the church has created a real process based on the church's rules, ecclesiastical order, doctrines, and sincerely held beliefs, the state must recognize it. 

The pastor and his wife

Following that conference, the pastor and his wife knew exactly what they would do.  They headed back to Hartford, CT to plant a new church and continue the call that God had in their lives.  Through our help, he set his church up on a solid foundation and implemented the ten-step legal process of ordination we taught him at the conference.  He became ordained right through the church and today, he confesses that the dream they thought had died is more alive than ever.  The church has grown to about 125 members and will continue to grow as God allows.  We walked them through the process of writing very strong bylaws.  He won't be getting voted out without cause ever again.

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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