Why does a church need a lawyer? Here are 20 reasons.

Well intentioned friends occasionally say something like:  “I’m glad you’re a lawyer for churches, but it’s too bad churches need lawyers.”

I get it.  Many churches only engage lawyers in a crisis, so lawyers (and their fees) are associated with bad news.

But lawyers do more than file lawsuits.  They can proactively help churches avoid legal issues.   Situations that could turn into costly litigation might be avoided.

Which is why the best legal fees are spent before there is a problem.  Preventive law is often far cheaper than responding to a crisis.

Here are twenty times that Churches need lawyers, apart from being sued:

  1. Every new church planter should talk to a lawyer familiar with churches, and ask about forming a corporation or similar entity.  The legal risks are too high and the solution is relatively easy.
  2. If you are updating a corporate charter, constitution, bylaws, or similar governing document, talk to an attorney.
  3. If you haven’t updated your main governing documents in awhile, the church should touch base with an attorney.  Hopefully, you have a relationship with a trusted legal advisor that you meet with every year.  But if it’s been more than five years, please set aside an hour or two for a review.  I can’t tell you how many churches incur fees because they did not understand or follow their governing documents.
  4. If you are updating your policy manual, it’s wise to have them reviewed by an attorney.  If you don’t yet have a policy manual, you should’ve talked to a lawyer a long time ago.
  5. If the church is granting housing allowance to ministers, an experienced lawyer will help your decisions be supportable and defensible.
  6. If you’re making a major change in compensation or benefits to key staff, a quick review by a lawyer may save headaches down the road.
  7. If you are purchasing real estate, the church should use an attorney to make sure the deal doesn’t result in surprises (environmental contamination, zoning issues, etc.)
  8. If your church is going to terminate the employment of anyone, it is a good time to talk to an attorney.  Non-ministerial employees are often subject to the same laws and regulations affecting other businesses.  And while the Constitution gives churches broad leeway over “ministerial” employees, those decisions also have legal and political implications.
  9. New ministry areas often raise new legal concerns that can be handled efficiently by an attorney– if they’re reviewed early enough.  Starting a new camp ministry? A youth ski trip? A South American Orphanage? A coffeehouse, gym, or bookstore?  A house for furloughed missionaries or sex-trafficking victims? A religious counseling ministry?   All of these can be great ministry opportunities — but they all have special legal risks that should be addressed early.
  10. A new or unusual fundraising method should be run by a lawyer who understands the charitable solicitation laws in the relevant areas.  An improperly designed used-car donation program, eBay ministry, or commission-based solicitor can risk the church’s tax exemption.
  11. Any significant investment agreement should be reviewed by an attorney.  Is the church issuing bonds?  Engaging in creative financing? Offering interest? Expecting to receive a return on an investment? Developing real estate?  Engage legal counsel.
  12. If the church is contacted by the IRS or the State or local equivalents, you should talk to an attorney, and have them respond.
  13. If your church receives communication about a zoning issue, it will be helpful to talk to an attorney familiar with RLUIPA before you make any response.
  14. If the church is contacted by an attorney representing someone else, you should respond through an attorney.
  15. If your church is engaged in church discipline, or removing members, talk to an attorney about your process.   If you are contacted by an attorney representing a member, please have a church attorney respond.
  16. If your church becomes aware of allegations of sexual misconduct by any employee, contractor, volunteer or associate, contact an attorney immediately.
  17. If the sexual misconduct includes any person under 18 or over 65, contact an attorney immediately.  In many states, ministers and other authorities are required to take very specific steps in a short timeframe.  For example, in Missouri, alerting the police does not fulfill your duties!  Some kinds of investigation will hurt, not help, the church.  Your church should already have a child protection policy drafted for your state’s specific requirements. An attorney can make sure it is implemented properly.
  18. If any staff, contractor, or volunteer is alleged to have taken unfair advantage of an elderly, infirm, or disabled person, talk to an attorney immediately.  Some states have implemented “elder abuse” laws similar to child abuse laws, with similar reporting requirements.
  19. If there is a potential conflict of interest transaction, it is helpful to involve an attorney before it is proposed and approved. Does it benefit staff, insiders, or key members in an unusual way?  An attorney can make sure the discussion and record support the decision of the church.
  20. Does your church still have Trustees? It’s past time to talk to an attorney.