Why This Document Is So Important

Written by Raul Rivera on Jan 26, 2016 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 the church. But what they never considered was what it would take to maintain the business and legal aspects of a church.

John and Sheila were familiar with staff meetings and budget planning. That was second nature to them now, having served as youth pastors for the past 4 years. Leading board meetings, however, was a completely different level of leadership they had never before contemplated. The governance of the church from a legal perspective was completely new.

While attending a church leadership conference, John and Sheila had the privilege of learning about the business and legal aspects of leading a church. It was at this conference that they both learned about the importance of bylaws. Being the more administratively-minded individual of the two, Sheila would be the one to spearhead the process of drafting the bylaws for their new ministry. However, after several hours of research, Sheila realized that she was not even sure of where to begin.

Bylaws: what exactly are those?

Simply put, 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:

  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 corporation 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 have the ability to streamline the focus of your church in an effective manner.

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 and not with you.

This document is familiar to pastors who have been around the church planting block for a while. But for those of us who are new to church planting, the bylaws document is a very new and often intimidating document. But it does not have to be.

They seem trivial

A dangerous posture that many pastors take is to believe that the matters of church bylaws are trivial. One pastor may say, "I don't 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 all of us. Yet, with a little bit of effort today, you can avoid unwanted and unnecessary trouble that could potentially arise later down the road.

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

What is in my bylaws?

Because 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 to make sure 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 had their bylaws not been deficient, they would have had a much easier time in court.

During our Ultimate Church Structure Conference, we discuss strategic components that every church should include in its bylaws. Today we will review some of those key clauses to demonstrate how they can save your ministry:

1. Scripture in the 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, which may not be popular with mainstream culture, while also remaining compliant with federal law at the same time.

In the court case Winbery vs. Louisiana College, 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.”

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. 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. When you include membership language in your bylaws, the board of directors will have ground to stand on when, and if, member discipline is necessary.

3. Licensing & ordination requirements

For tax and legal purposes, it is wise for your church to establish a solid licensing and ordination process since 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 and/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 ever be called into question.

The blessing of bylaws

Now, perhaps you are reading this and are wondering, “What pastor would not know about bylaws?” The truth of the matter is that many of us are called to professions where we are required to learn details of the trade that we had not before considered.

Like John and Sheila from our story, there are hundreds of pastors across this country, many of whom call our office, 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.

We have the privilege of serving ministers that are beginning their churches, and everyday we are giving information on how to manage the legal aspects of running a church.

From 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 as it meets the needs of the community it serves.

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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