Why Bylaws Are Important, And How to Make Yours Better

Written by Raul Rivera on Jan 19, 2017 in Church Management

John and Sheila realized that starting a church was not for the faint of heart. That is why when they decided that it was time to begin their ministry, they were fully prepared for the tasks of planning services, counseling members, and seeking God daily to know the best direction for their church.

However, they never considered what it would take to maintain the business and legal aspects of a church. 

Although they were familiar with staff meetings and budget planning, leading board meetings and governing a church, from a legal perspective, were completely new for them. They had not contemplated these sides of ministry before. 

While attending a church leadership conference, John and Sheila had the privilege to learn about the business and legal areas of leading a church. They also learned about the importance of bylaws

Being the more administratively minded of the two, Sheila was the one selected to spearhead the process of drafting the bylaws for their new ministry. After several hours of research, Sheila realized that she was not sure of where to begin.

What you need to know about bylaws

Bylaws are defined as a set of general rules and regulations that guide and direct the daily affairs of the members of an organization. Bylaws are crucial for churches and ministries because when properly structured, they do the following:

  1. Clarify the purpose of the church;
  2. Provide protection by distinguishing the theocratic government of the church;
  3. Give guidelines for how the board can and cannot make decisions;
  4. Guide the board in how to establish policies and procedures for the church, including succession, finances, ordination, membership, etc.; and
  5. Give guidelines to help ensure that the board is operating according to IRS regulations for tax-exempt organizations.

In essence, bylaws are the driving force that helps a church run smoothly. When bylaws are well-written, tailored to your church, and utilized correctly, they can effectively streamline the focus of your church. 

Furthermore, your church’s bylaws can provide invaluable guidance and protection for your church. However, when your church’s bylaws are not structured well and are incompatible with your church’s values and mission, then you may find that you have a document that actually works against you - not one that is for you.

Your church’s bylaws can provide invaluable guidance and protection for your church.

A little bit of effort can go a long way

Many pastors take a dangerous posture of thinking that the matters of church bylaws are trivial. One pastor may say, "I do not worry about trivial matters . . . my church is in God's hands and He is the one who takes care of us." 

That is true, He does take care of us all. Yet, with a little bit of effort today, you can avoid unwanted and unnecessary trouble that could potentially arise later down the road. The fact of the matter is that second to the Bible, your bylaws are the most important document in your church.

Understand that utilizing wisdom while operating within the legal realm of our society will help protect your ministry in the long run. Well-structured bylaws will help provide safeguards for your ministry.

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

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Do you know what is in your church’s bylaws?

Since bylaws are a set of regulations that define what an organization is and how it will operate, there are some “must haves” that should be included in your bylaws. These items give assurance that your church is set up to succeed. Additionally, including certain sections and clauses in your bylaws will protect your ministry from state law that may not be favorable for ministries.

Churches that face issues in litigation often find that if their bylaws had not been deficient, they would have had a much easier time in court.

Next we will review some of those key clauses to demonstrate how they can save your ministry.

3 strategies that will strengthen your bylaws

1. Include Scripture in your bylaws

Implementing Scripture references throughout your bylaws is a protective measure that establishes the document as religious in nature. This scriptural protection allows your church to make decisions based on faith while remaining in compliance with federal law.

In the court case Winbery vs. La. College, 124 So. 3d.1212, the court stated that, “The ‘Entanglement Doctrine’ provides that a court must decline jurisdiction over a lawsuit when the dispute is so intertwined with matters of religion that a proper resolution cannot be made without interpreting or choosing between competing religious principles or doctrines.”

Scriptural protection allows your church to make decisions based on faith.

Therefore, we can presume that if your church has Scripture references to support your decision-making processes, you will provide even more protection to your ministry.

2. Include membership requirements

It is necessary to include in your bylaws whether or not your church will have members. If you choose to have members, you will need to indicate whether your members will or will not have voting power. By including membership language in your bylaws, along with having an outlined membership program, the board of directors will have ground to stand on when member discipline is necessary.

(Recommended reading: “3 Principles of a Good Church Membership Program”)

3. Include licensing & ordination requirements

It is ideal for your church to establish a solid licensing and ordination program. Licensed and ordained ministers are afforded certain tax benefits, such as a housing allowance and self-employment tax exemption. 

Because such tax benefits are afforded to ministers, the IRS has questioned the legitimacy of some ordinations. This is simply to ensure that the tax benefits afforded to ministers are only received by those ministers who are truly licensed or ordained.

Therefore, when you include licensing and ordination language in your church’s bylaws, and you have a prescribed ordination process established, the ministers who become ordained through your church can walk with confidence should their ordination be called into question.

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

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

An integral part of your church’s foundation

After reading this article, I hope you can see that bylaws are an integral part of your church’s foundation. Do not buy into the false ideas that bylaws are unnecessary for today’s church. Find a ministry that has well-established, protective bylaws and you will find a church that is secure and confident in its operations.

Bylaws are an integral part of your church’s foundation.

Like John and Sheila in our story above, there are hundreds of pastors across this country who simply do not know where to begin. However, one of the main differences between John and Sheila and many of these other pastors is that John and Sheila knew where they needed help.

My only question to you now is, “Do you need help?”

To learn more about how you can strengthen and improve your bylaws in order to better protect what God has given you to lead, I invite you to give us a call. 

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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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