How to Prepare Bylaws for a Church Nonprofit

By Lee Hall, J.D.

How to Prepare Bylaws for a Church Nonprofit

By Lee Hall, J.D.

Like any other nonprofit organization, a church should have carefully written bylaws as a reference for how the church directors, officers, staff, and members represent the church and carry out its mission. Bylaws are not written in stone and may be amended but still should be drafted carefully from the organization's inception. The bylaws themselves should even include the procedure for their amendment.

Empty church pews and bright light shining from main window

As the bylaws set forth rules for the church's internal direction and administration, they serve a vital role for the church. The bylaws lay out, among other things:

  • The roles and responsibilities of the officers and directors
  • The manner of electing the directors and selecting the officers, as well as the rules governing their terms and providing for removal
  • The standing committees that undertake specific roles on behalf of the church
  • The procedure under which the church holds board meetings and votes on questions affecting its membership
  • Guideposts for financial activities (such as procedure and voting regulations under which the church buys and sells its property)

Some churches also include requirements for admitting people as members (and revoking membership), employment criteria, and due diligence methods for selecting people who interact with children.

Community Input

Subject to certain state and federal restrictions, a church is free to do its work as it sees fit. Thus, the drafting of bylaws should have input from the church community. A review of similar churches' bylaws is also helpful.

Although bylaws need not be publicly disclosed, transparency helps members and donors understand the way the church carries out its mission.

Moreover, at any time, a member of the public may ask to see a copy of the church's Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (Form 1023), which the church files with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) when it forms as a nonprofit. Nonprofits must attach copies of their bylaws as well as the articles of incorporation with this form and must subsequently provide copies of Form 1023 to anyone upon request. The IRS requires that certain papers including Form 1023 are to be "provided immediately" in response to someone asking for them in person or within 30 days in response to a written request.

Some churches take the initiative by displaying copies of both the articles of incorporation and the bylaws on their websites.

Legal Limits

Church bylaws must adhere to the regulations of the state in which the church incorporates. Most churches incorporate to limit the liability of church members. Should the church ever fall into debt or face a legal action, incorporation shields individual members' assets from seizure to pay damages or debts.

The bylaws must also comport with the federal tax code, ยง501(c)(3). While the code permits hiring staff and offering them reasonable compensation, it prohibits the church from transferring any benefit to parties involved in its founding or current management. It also prohibits political lobbying and requires a specific, charitable purpose.

In spite of the above limits, the bylaws are the rules a church imposes on itself, reflecting the agreement between the church and its members to pursue their mission in specific ways. Provisions in the bylaws can help to resolve disagreements that arise regarding the direction of the church or methods of carrying out that direction. Bylaws can also preserve the intent of the founders, as new individuals rise to positions of responsibility in the church.

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