From Greg Hubbard, Director of Operations

As a church planter or church leader, there are certain things we don’t like to think about (like death and taxes) that we cannot avoid. I can’t give official legal advice in this forum, but I can point out things that I’ve seen that, must be planned for and expected:

UNDERSTANDING YOUR CHURCH COULD GET SUED . . . AT ANY TIME

It is a bad day when summons is served.  Yet in reality anyone can sue for any reason.  They may not prevail, but they will certainly make your life difficult in the meantime.

Slip & fall, child abuse allegations, auto accident, board decision, food poisoning, parking lot mishap, dismissed employee, alleged misuse of a donation – all of these can lead to a lawsuit.

Of course, prevention is always best.  Following good practices helps with prevention.  But what protects you if you get sued?  Simply put, your best line of defense is your liability insurance policy.

To avoid a legal drama at your church, carefully select and monitor your liability insurance coverages.  Pay attention to recommendations and offers from your carrier.

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PRIORITIZING CHILD SAFETY . . . OVER EVERYTHING

Yes, even at the (temporary) expense of growth!

A child reports abuse while at your church—this is any church’s worst nightmare.  Besides concerns for kids and concerns for the reputation of Christ’s church, there is the worry about the legal issues that could occur if a parent sues the church for an incident involving a staff member or volunteer.

To prevent this from happening at your church, enact strict child safety policies and follow them relentlessly.  Be willing to close a room (and deal with the fact that you can’t be the church with the best kids’ programs on Earth) if you cannot adhere to your policies regarding properly screened volunteers and appropriate teacher-to-student ratios.

Willingness to comply with those policies will help prevent harm to kids and harm to the reputation of your church.

GETTING PERMISSION TO USE . . . ANYTHING

When you have invested significant time, money, and energy into buying blanket licenses, it is easy to assume your church is covered and has permission to use any artistic creation that seems compelling.

Then the letter from the law firm comes demanding you cease and desist (if you are fortunate) or demanding tens of thousands of dollars due to copyright infringement (if you are not so fortunate).

The first step is to research and purchase the appropriate licenses.  But also be sure someone is asking the permission question about everything your use in your worship services, in your other programming, and even on your website.

Bottom line: get the proper licenses and special permissions, and make sure everything you use is encompassed by them.

KNOWING EXACTLY WHY MONEY GOES . . . TO ANYONE

Any time a church gives money to an individual, the church should understand why it is doing so.  Is it benevolence?  If so, is a proper benevolence policy in place and being followed?  Is it expense reimbursement?  If so, is there a proper accountability plan in place and is it being followed?  Is it compensation?  And if so, does the church understand the difference between an independent contractor and an employee?  Churches sometimes presume that interns, musicians, and custodians can be treated as 1099 contractors, as can part-time, temporary, low-responsibility people. Yet these are not the factors the IRS uses to determine which is which!

You need to know exactly what is happening any time the church gives money to an individual.

Nobody gets excited about Articles of Incorporation & Bylaws!  But . . . .

The U.S. Government only has authority that is delegated to it by “we the people,” and we only know that by what is written in our Constitution and other legal documents. Similarly, the only way a church can conduct business is if it has expressed authority to do so in its governing documents.

What powers do your church members have?  Your elders?  Your lead pastor?  Can the church purchase property?  Can it receive income and invest it?  Can it ordain ministers?  Can it buy insurance that shields board members and staff from personal liability from lawsuits?

Ensure consistency between what you actually do and what your governing documents say you can do.

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Hardly a week goes by when I don’t receive a question from one of our recently planted churches about some aspect of their operations.   Among the questions I hear (or sometimes am surprised that nobody thinks to ask!) are the following:

  • Does our church have the right insurance policy in place?
  • What are the requirements for sending out donor statements each year?
  • Are we doing everything properly under the new health care law? Are we even going to be able to afford health insurance much longer?
  • If somebody confesses something to me as a pastor, when am I required to report it? When should I not tell anyone? Does it matter if it is a kid or an adult?  
  • Can our church have a Super Bowl party and call it that?
  • When I receive notices in the mail from the IRS or the state, what should I do with them? Does it matter if the information contained in them is right or wrong?  
  • What items can and cannot be included as housing allowance expenses? Have we even properly designated our pastors’ housing allowances?
  • What is the difference between being ordained, commissioned, or licensed?

From time to time over the upcoming year, I’m going to provide some quick insight on these kinds of issues to help keep you and your church on track! We will group these articles together and tag them as “Operations” so you can refer back to them via the Orchard Group website blog. Look for articles coming soon. Please let me know if there are any topics you would like to hear more about!

Greg Hubbard serves as Director of Operations for Orchard Group. He helps new churches with various aspects of their project management timeline before and after launch. Greg has served on new church plant teams and, in a former life, practiced law.

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