As your church continues to grow, it’s helpful to make sure your legal documents are in order. Legal documents for churches aren’t one-size-fits-all. Maybe you’re planting a new church and need a checklist of the documents you might need. Maybe you’re a leader at a church that’s been operating for some time and want to see if your documents and policies need to be updated. We put together this guide for you highlighting the most common documents for churches to help you make sure your bases are covered.
Articles of Incorporation
For your church to be recognized as a legal entity by your state, you’ll need to file articles of incorporation. This legal document includes information about the church’s name, address, statement of purpose, and its initial board of directors. This is often the first step in establishing a new place of worship.
Like any other nonprofit organization, churches are governed by an official set of rules called bylaws. Bylaws are essential because they determine how decisions are made, conflicts are resolved, and risks to the church are avoided. You’ll want to stay up to date on what your bylaws should include and avoid common mistakes because your bylaws have the final word on legal concerns and governance questions.
For example, your church’s bylaws ought to contain the answers to the following questions:
- How will the church’s board of directors be structured?
- How often will the board meet?
- How long of a term can a board member serve?
- How can a board member be removed?
- What will happen when the church needs to dissolve in the future?
- What if the church bylaws need to be amended?
… In addition to several other important things to address.
Your bylaws will also determine how your church’s members fit into the organization as a whole, if you decide to have voting members. Many people think a “member” is a person who is involved with your church in some capacity, whether they’re a volunteer, a donor, or someone who works with the church. But the term “member” has a legal definition in this case. A member, in the legal sense, is a person who has some sort of voting rights that are built into the corporate documents.
Some churches do have a membership structure and some do not, and you’ll want to consider pros and cons of having members. If you do decide your church will have members, keep in mind that the church’s bylaws will play a key role in resolving any conflicts between members and the church’s board. Even if your congregation consistently demonstrates a spirit of selflessness, humility and prayerful consideration when it comes to church matters, your bylaws will help in eliminating guesswork if disagreements do arise.
Volunteer Policies and Agreements
Most churches are full of generous people who are willing to give their time and talent to lead worship, teach classes, or prepare for events. While not all churches require their volunteers to follow specific policies, it’s beneficial to have written guidelines for how volunteers are expected to behave, how projects ought to be completed, or how liability is handled.
A volunteer policy communicates the church’s rules surrounding a particular volunteer position. For example, many churches have implemented safety policies for volunteers who assist with childcare. This policy might outline youth safety measures regarding:
- What affectionate behaviors are acceptable vs. inappropriate for your church’s volunteers; how to spot or prevent abuse
- What the church’s procedures are for people dropping off and picking up children
- Who can serve in the children’s programs (for example, those who have attended the church for a certain amount of time and passed a background check).
Volunteer agreements, on the other hand, are the documents that volunteers sign to acknowledge and agree to these policies. Or, depending on the project, it may be a release of liability or a commitment to a certain task. Volunteer agreements ensure there is a clear understanding between the church and the volunteer about both parties’ rights and responsibilities. Generally, volunteer policies communicate the volunteers’ rules, while volunteer agreements communicate the volunteers’ roles.
We’ve helped nonprofits of all kinds draft volunteer agreements, so reach out to us for assistance if you’re seeking a nonprofit attorney to draft policy or agreement language for your church.
Statement of Faith
Your church’s statement of faith is the document that contains your beliefs and/or tenants of those beliefs. Legally, it is not required, but if you’re looking to submit the 1023 application to the IRS for 501c3 status, your statement of faith will need to be included in either the bylaws or as a standalone document.
Your statement of faith might answer questions such as:
- What is the nature of the deity or deities we serve?
- What do we believe about our religious texts?
- What is humanity’s role in these beliefs?
In general, your statement of faith should be accessible to all who want clarity on your theology or ideology. Many churches keep their statement of faith on their website so church seekers and current attendees can reference it to learn more about the church’s stances.
Other Types of Policies
Many churches have policy and procedure handbooks. These policies might cover anything from:
- Financial policies which outline who can handle financial information and how certain processes can be accomplished. You can learn more about some helpful policies and best practices in this free resource by our sister company, Allies 4 Good.
- Disciplinary policies on disciplining board members, elders, or members who have violated other policies or guidelines
- Facility use policies and agreements that determine how the church’s facilities can or can’t be used (for example, what if a couple wants to use the church as a wedding venue? If you rent out the gym for an event, what if something is damaged?)
If your church has any other unique arrangements or program concerns, it may be helpful to develop a policy. Policies encourage consistency in how programs are implemented and they remove ambiguity when questions arise. They also protect the church from liability.
Other Documents for Churches
Here are some final documents church leaders should be aware of and know how to access.
- Your IRS determination letter if you’re a 501c3. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship are automatically considered tax exempt by the IRS (as long as they meet certain requirements), without filing for recognition of 501(c)(3) status officially. However, if your church does have this recognition, it’s good to have this document on hand, especially if you’ll be submitting for grant funding or donations from companies. Many organizations like the legitimacy of having the official documentation from the IRS (you can learn more about the pros and cons of your church pursuing this option here).
- Meeting Minutes so your church has accurate record of all board meetings, including church business meetings or special meetings with members.
- Database of Members so that you can stay up to date on who in your organization is a legal, voting member.
We help churches with their legal documents and policies all the time. Some legal documents, like bylaws, really should be reviewed every few years to make sure the document reflects the current state of how the church operates and make any necessary amendments. Others, like volunteer agreements, are optional but can be extremely beneficial. Let us know how we can help with either a review or the creation of your church’s documents or policies. We’re here to help so you can focus your energy on the people and communities you serve.
Charitable Allies is a nonprofit law firm that exclusively serves nonprofit organizations because we believe all nonprofits should have access to great legal counsel that doesn’t cost a fortune. We’ve helped over 1500 nonprofit organizations nationwide since 2013. Whether you’re starting a nonprofit, reorganizing, or solving board conflict, our nonprofit lawyers will provide the guidance you need to get back to what matters most: your mission.