The legalities of church planting

By Raul Rivera

There are two steps every church planter must take: the faith step and the legal step.

church-plantingStarting a church requires faith.

Taking the faith step is the moment when you say yes to God’s call in your life. It’s an exciting and special time in your ministry.

Starting a church also requires wisdom — including the legal step. This can be very different because we usually never think of it when we say yes to God’s call.

But, if you’re called to lead a church in the 21st century, the call comes with a stewardship responsibility to manage the legal side of the ministry. God knew this when he chose to call you in this period of history — in the most litigious society in the history of the world. That’s why he gave a warning to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”

In today’s society, heeding that warning requires your church to form a strong legal foundation upon which to build its vision. In our country, there are some legal responsibilities we must take to ensure this substantial foundation. And, it’s this legal step which most pastors are least prepared to take.

Why so unprepared?
Most men and women who receive a call from God into the ministry know how to preach, teach and make disciples; few, however, have been trained to take the legal step. This is critical, as success in ministry isn’t just working in the ministry, but also working on the ministry.

Often, taking the legal step incites church planters on a quest to find a partner to help them through the process. A solid partner has a conviction to do everything “in order” — in other words, to start (and remain) compliant.

When seeking a legal and compliance partner, a church planter should keep four guidelines at the forefront.

1) Content is king. Almost anyone can claim to “start your church.” But, there’s a big difference between creating documents and truly understanding the life and legal principles of the church.

When looking at a potential legal partner, ask yourself some key questions:
•    Do they seem to have an understanding of who I am as a pastor?
•    Do they have experiential knowledge in today’s legal world?
•    Do they have depth of knowledge, or just the bare minimum, in advertising their services?
•    Does their website speak to a breadth of understanding, or is it just marketing the minimums?

Much like a good sermon, content is king. It’s not just how a potential legal partner says something — it’s  what they say that matters.

2) Two are better than one. There’s a major difference between one man or woman trying to help you and having a team dedicated to your success. Often, when a problem or question arises in your ministry, you need advice — fast. In those moments, if the one man or woman you rely on legally is on vacation, sick or needed elsewhere, it can be a huge challenge.

The best-case scenario is to have a team of professionals who can help you.

3) History is telling. You can tell a lot about a person by what others say about him or her. The same is true of your legal partner.

It’s important that the provider not be a novice, but rather have a successful history of helping churches and ministries just like yours. It’s akin to investigating their Better Business Bureau rating; ask about success rates with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and look for testimonies from other churches that have partnered with them. (Remember: the greatest indicator of how your church will be treated is how that legal partner has treated its previous clients.)

4) Do more than start right. Stay right. When looking for a legal partner, ask questions beyond what it takes to start your church. For example, do they have experience in post-launch services? Are they knowledgeable in areas such as the Housing Allowance, creating W-2s, compensation agreements, annual minutes and so on? Remember that the ideal partner starts — and finishes — the race with you.

Finding the right partner is very important to your ministry’s launch and life. Although the process is never easy, when you find the right partner, you’ll know it — and your ministry will be the better for it.

Raul Rivera is CEO of StartCHURCH. With more than 14,000 clients served, the company has maintained an “A” rating with the Better Business Bureau and a 100-percent success rating with the IRS.

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