Q: What should our ministry know about bylaws?

A: Due to the unique legal protections afforded to religious organizations, your bylaws are your ministry’s opportunity to write your own story on how your ministry will look and act.

The good news is that you are free to write bylaws that conform to your ministry’s sincerely held beliefs and practices. The not-so-good news is that a civil or criminal court has the authority to hold you accountable if you do not follow your own rules.

What are Bylaws?

Bylaws are essentially rules governing an organization’s major decisions and key activities. Generally, bylaws define and describe the rights and responsibilities of members, leaders, staff, and others related to the organization. Bylaws also describe how leaders are selected and when elections are to be conducted. Other key issues typically addressed in bylaws include:

  • Who in the ministry is authorized to make various decisions, including major financial decisions or decisions that bind the ministry to contractual responsibilities?
  • How is the leadership board organized?
  • What is the relationship between the leadership board and the congregation?
  • Who has the authority to make hiring and firing decisions involving pastors and staff?
  • When and how are meetings of the leadership board and congregation conducted?

The “best practice” with respect to bylaws is to carefully draft and implement bylaws that accurately describe your ministry’s actual practices and beliefs. All decision-makers within the ministry should have their own copy of the bylaws, and regular attention should be given to compliance with the rules they contain.

When changes are needed, the procedures described in the bylaws must be followed to amend or otherwise alter those rules before changing the ministry’s practice. Because bylaws are governed by non-profit corporation statutes, ministries should rely on the counsel of a local attorney whenever changes to the bylaws will be made.

When Should We Update Our Bylaws?

Because organizations tend to change over time, it is a good idea to review your bylaws at least every three to five years.

Most ministries adopt a set of bylaws when the ministry is first formed. These bylaws are often deposited in a file folder at the back of a little-used file cabinet for years at a time. During that time, the ministry’s practices often change, sometimes significantly. When the bylaws are finally recovered from their folder, the ministry is faced with one of two options: 1) conform the ministry’s practices to comply with the bylaws; or 2) amend the bylaws to reflect the ministry’s practices.

Whenever your organization plans to make a major decision or a change in its practices, the bylaws should be consulted to determine if the proposed decision or change is allowed and/or being handled properly. If the bylaws pose a problem for the proposed change, then the organization should not make the change before amending the bylaws to allow it.

Because organizations tend to change over time, it is a good idea to review your bylaws at least every three to five years to make sure that the organization is still following its own rules and that the bylaws are not in need of amendment to address the current needs of the organization.

Recommended Resources

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