3 Important Considerations for Starting a Church

Rural country church

When you feel a call to plant your own church, it’s important to keep your overarching mission in mind, and to know what is required of you if you intend to heed that call. Starting a church presents unique challenges to be dealt with, but if you’re so inclined, we present three important considerations for you to ponder after you become an ordained minister. There are personal and legal requirements that need to be met to make sure that your church and its ministries are operating legitimately.

The advice offered here is presented as a general guideline. The Universal Life Church cannot provide legal counsel regarding founding a church. It is our goal to provide considerations and helpful tips that help you heed the call in a way that serves you and the people to whom you intend to minister. For more detailed information about starting your own church, we invite you to check out the instructional literature available through our online catalog.

1. Understanding the Difference Between Church and Ministry

Before you get started on founding a church, it’s important to think carefully about your motivations. Are you focused on a specific area or type of ministry, or would your goals be served by creating a church and completing all the necessary paperwork? Consider the fact that there are several extensive requirements for opening your own church. The fulfillment of your goals can be deeply satisfying, but pastoring your own church is not for the faint of heart.

One of the first things you need to do is recognize the legal differences between a church and a ministry.

  • Church: a church is a fully incorporated legal entity that has significant operational costs, including salaries for workers, leasing costs for a building to hold services and other church operations, and the associated utility bills, among other expenses.
  • Ministry: ministries are generally simpler than churches. They take on various forms, but at a basic level, your ministry may involve a group of people that meet regularly to realize shared goals. Although ministries don’t involve the expenses and paperwork that come with starting a church, they also can’t take advantage of the tax benefits available to churches.

Deciding on whether you’re starting a church or a ministry should involve answering the following questions:

  • Will this require you to devote the majority of your working hours, like a 9-to-5 job, or just a part of your time?
  • How many people will be regularly involved with this ministry or church?
  • Are you starting a new organization from scratch, or building from an existing church or ministry?
  • What types of activities and outreach will be the focus of your organization (community service, social justice, charitable fundraising, etc.)?
  • Will you be officiating weddings, funerals, baptisms and other services?
  • Is this church or ministry online, face-to-face or a combination of both?

Carefully consider these questions to help you figure out if you should start an actual church or create a less formal ministry instead.

2. Incorporating a Church

Group of friends studying religion together

Now that you’ve considered your options and settled on founding a church, one of the first things to do is to incorporate your church. Start by drafting a set of bylaws that establish the principles of your church. As this is a part of legal, official documentation, you should think carefully about the specific language of your bylaws. You can find sample documents online to use as a go-by to get started. You will also need to create a “belief statement” that details the tenets of your church’s faith and its practices.

When it comes to incorporation, state regulations will dictate what is required. Search online on your state’s website for business incorporation. The requisite forms to file should be readily available. This is a crucial part of the church founding process, so attention to detail is extremely important. Consider consulting an attorney who specializes in incorporating organizations to make sure all your bases are covered.

You’ll also need to determine who will serve on a board of directors for your church. While churches are typically nonprofit entities, they are also corporations and as such need to have a board to provide oversight.

3. Managing IRS Compliance

As a church, it’s important that your organization is compliant with tax rules and regulations. After incorporation, the IRS grants your organization an Employer Identification Number or EIN, which is analogous to the Social Security number of an individual for tax identification purposes. It is incumbent upon you to make sure that you’ve completed all necessary forms. Contact the IRS Business and Specialty Tax Line at 1-800-829-4933 for additional information. This is a free resource that you can use for the benefit of your church.

For a more detailed look at the logistics behind building your own ministry organization, we highly recommend this book that covers how to start a church, available via the catalog on our sister site.

Bottom line: the church founding process is far from simple. It’s important to dot every “i” and cross every “t” for the sake of your organization and its endeavors. Plan carefully and cover every detail to make your church a legally compliant reality.