It Takes a Village: Pastors and the Law

February 9, 2012

Some say it takes a village to raise a child. Others say it takes a family. I recently became convinced that it takes a law firm to advise a pastor who is administering a church. While preparing to participate in a class on church administration as part of the ministerial formation requirement for students at the Lancaster Theological Seminary, I became convinced that any pastor in a parish setting needs a law firm on call. Anecdotes related by the adjunct professor, the Reverend Dr. Barbara Kershner Daniel, about her years in the parish ministry further illustrated the need.

Pastors face many decisions in the course of their work, from choosing a form of organization for their church to managing property matters. Depending upon denominational polity and local requirements, pastors face concerns in the buying, selling and mortgaging of real estate in addition to those which an individual or commercial enterprise would encounter. Real estate law and church law such as the United Methodist "trust clause" intersect.

Changes in worship style and advances in technology now necessitate that each pastor become familiar with licensing and permissions. The new intellectual property issues go far beyond the standard church performance exception to copyright law that for many years made such concerns unnecessary. Printing hymns in bulletins, using screen projections, not to mention sharing podcasts and streaming videos, now demand that each pastor become his or her own intellectual property lawyer.

Having some working knowledge of real estate and intellectual property law is hardly enough. In what can be a highly competitive fundraising environment, pastors must also understand the administration of estates and trusts. The more estate planning knowledge pastors have, the more effective they will be in raising funds for their churches.

Pastors of larger churches with staff need to have some familiarity with employment law to help them in hiring and firing employees, engaging independent contractors and maintaining employment records. Indeed, pastors need a knowledge of insurance law to assess risks in their churches and to deal with casualty losses such as damaged church property or a church member who may slip and fall on the church steps. Pastors must be especially vigilant, whether avoiding charges of defamation in a sermon, policing the handling of funds such as memorials and trust funds under the church management or carefully wording church announcements and prayer chains about a person’s health. While they may not be "covered entities" under the HIPAA law dealing with medical records, pastors must nonetheless balance the need to express concern for ailing members against those members’ rights to privacy.

A pastor needs to be concerned about his or her own contract, whether he is "called" or "sent" to the parish. This encompasses understanding and being sure to fulfill all requirements of the contract, and also having a knowledge of his or her rights under the same. In addition, a pastor needs legal knowledge as to management of finances, including tax law. In order to get the proper exclusion from gross income, the intricacies of the parsonage and housing allowance must be documented and approved.

A pastor, without the benefit of a law firm, must become functionally knowledgeable about business or organization law, real estate law, intellectual property law, estate administration and planning, employment law, tax law, insurance law and tort law. This is an enormous task for any individual, or even one individual attorney. In short, it takes a law firm. It takes a village.

Jon Gruber is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from the University of Virginia and practices in a variety of areas, including Nonprofit & Tax-Exempt Organizations and Estate and Trust Administration. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Lancaster Theological Seminary.