Wheaton Bible Church’s outside-the-box approach to compensation

Wheaton Bible Church’s compensation philosophy blends a competitive approach with a focus on employee well-being and development.

Wheaton, Illinois-based Wheaton Bible Church is working to ensure all 114 pastors and employees feel valued and appreciated as it seeks to serve others.

As executive pastor of administration, I’m responsible for setting staff salary and benefit plans that help achieve that goal.

Toward that end, Wheaton Bible Church’s philosophy spells out how the church will attract, retain, motivate, and reward the most qualified people it can find while also encouraging those same people to grow in their ministry careers.

Follow CPA Elaine Sommerville’s four-step process for determining salaries

The compensation practice strives to be consistent with generally accepted biblical truths and practices.

To do this, the church sets salaries based on position classifications, which in turn are set based on job responsibilities, then compares those salaries to other, comparable evangelical churches each year.

Scott Landon shares a few helpful tips with Church Law & Tax’s Matt Branaugh related to setting church compensation:

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Staying competitive

The church’s goal is to remain competitive and, in the past two years, Wheaton Bible has been able to:

  • Give each employee a raise.
  • Give most employees a bonus in February 2022 and February 2023.
  • Give every employee a Christmas gift in December.
  • Provide each benefit-eligible employee an additional holiday in December 2022 and an additional holiday on July 3, 2023.
  • Maintain health care premium costs in 2022 and for two of our three health insurance plan options in 2023, and kept dental premium costs flat in both 2022 and 2023 for singles and couples, with just a $5 per month increase for family coverage.

Other “wins” include:

  • Increasing anniversary gift awards at the 5-year intervals.
  • Providing additional vacation days for 10-14 years of service.
  • Approving a long-term service retirement gift policy.

But, beyond all that, Wheaton Bible also offers other benefits to full-time employees, including:

  • Remote work one day per week.
  • Flexible schedules to allow better work-life balance.
  • Paid time-off for holidays, vacation, personal, and sick days.
  • Discounts at preschool and ministry events.
  • Health care and dental insurance. On average the church pays 80 percent of the premiums.
  • A Health Savings Account and Flexible Spending Account that allow the cost of medical and dependent care to be minimized through tax-free dollars.
  • The church contributes five percent of employee compensation and matches up to another two percent into a 403b account.
  • The church pays half of a full-time employee’s Social Security insurance and 100 percent of the cost of life, long-term disability, and workers’ compensation insurance.

Wheaton Bible Church: Shepherding the shepherds

In addition, Wheaton Bible’s board established a long-term service retirement gift policy, and a shepherding program whereby elders are assigned three staff members to care for on a quarterly basis.

Pick up the latest edition of Church Compensation: From Strategic Plan to Compliance today.

The church also celebrates full- and part-time employees with benefits upon achieving five-year milestones by offering monetary bonuses and an additional day of paid time off (PTO) per five-year milestone. For a 15-year employee, that translates into a financial gift plus three additional days of PTO during the anniversary year.


Wheaton Bible has expanded bonus pools to all full-time employees and several part-time employees, along with a letter of appreciation for their work that includes a compensation and benefits summary reflecting the church’s investment in them.

Weekly prayer meetings

The church’s senior pastor doubled weekly staff prayer meetings to 60 minutes and includes singing and readings from the Psalms with time for individual reflection.

These meetings also include a time of prayer as tables come together to share ministry and personal needs, along with those offered from the congregation. Table assignments change every two months. A 15-minute time for fellowship and snacks follows each prayer meeting.

Monthly staff lunches

Monthly staff lunches offer individual staff members a chance to share their spiritual journeys. They’re also a good time to provide updates on church matters. Meanwhile, pastors meet monthly to read and discuss a specific book as part of an overall investment in theological growth.

The senior pastor is also engaging employees through lunch meetings with each ministry area. This is a time to ask questions, check-in, and receive input.

Scott Landon is the executive pastor of administration for Wheaton Bible Church in Illinois, where he oversees day-to-day operations.

Yes, Ministries Should Embrace AI

AI is a tool that, if used properly, can advance ministry.

There is no doubt that artificial intelligence (AI) has been a significant technological advancement and will continue to revolutionize our lives, with some suggesting AI is to this generation what dial-up internet was to the prior generation. 

But with artificial intelligence comes many questions.

Is it safe?

Can it be trusted? 

And will AI lead to the destruction of life on our planet?

In many ways, our sci-fi imaginations get the better of us: Is AI the Terminator come to life? Have we finally built Mr. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation? When can I order my first C-3PO droid from Amazon?

Plug in and listen to Church Lawyer Erika Cole tackle how AI intersects with the church.

Think critically about AI

But the more constructive question for church leaders is this: How will AI affect churches and ministries? 

One thing to remember: Artificial has been around for a while and has been used in the form of algorithms to process data and determine outcomes. Algorithms determine our social media feeds, protect our bank accounts and personal information, and even help with traffic management.  

As the algorithms get “smarter,” the appearance of intelligence emerges. Add to that the ability to tackle more complex, subjective questions, such as “Which national park is the best?” and the algorithms behind AI begin to give it the appearance of discernment.

But AI can’t discern. Remember, the data from which it draws its conclusions was provided by humans that may not always agree and are often filled with biases. So, while artificial intelligence does its best with what it has, we’ve found it to be extremely flawed.

You remember the adage, Garbage in equals garbage out? It’s still true. But with AI, the scale makes finding the garbage a challenge, and the subjective nature of what one human programmer views as garbage compared to another programmer’s view further complicates the effectiveness.

It harkens to the early days of the internet when we emphasized that not everything you read online is true. 

Now, the emphasis is on reminding people that, not only is the internet not the ultimate source of truth, but neither is social media—and neither is AI.

Embrace AI, do not fear it

How does all of this affect ministries? 

First, there is no need to be scared. Artificial intelligence is not life—only God can create life. No amount of programming or algorithms can change that. AI can only mimic the creative process.

Second, you can’t always trust it.   Phishing scams and get-rich-quick schemes flourish because we believe what we see online. You don’t know if there is another human trying to scam you or another human using AI to make the scam more complex, but you can’t naively trust AI. 

Third, ministries should embrace AI.  (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Churches and ministries should not run and hide just because AI poses risks. Instead, they should use AI, as they hopefully use other technology, for ministry effectiveness.

Convene conversations around AI

AI offers numerous ministry opportunities. Instead of fearing it, use it as a discipleship opportunity.

Sure, your theology will come into play when evaluating artificial intelligence, but is your church teaching about it with any theological depth? 

Does all this talk of gen AI have you thinking about other IT-related issues? Consider picking up a copy of Nick Nicholaou’s “Church IT.

Have you considered community events to teach the good and the bad? What about teaching basic online safety, including code words to avoid child voice scamming, or that using AI—or any other method—to cheat on one’s homework is a sin?

I assure you: I typed what you are reading here. But how do you know? How would a school know? Even AI tools used to detect AI-created content had to be shut down because the tools failed more than 60 percent of the time.

In many cases, AI should be an opportunity for the church to look deeper at itself, both beneath the steeple and outside the walls.

AI’s undeniable power

Meanwhile, the power of AI is undeniable and creates questions and concerns.

Its ability to generate lifelike videos is amazing. 

The benefits to church production in not having to record your pastor literally saying every word, but rather, setting up an AI version so you can improve efficiency is incredible.

The sin-cursed side of this is, what happens when the pastor leaves and the church holds on to the likeness and makes it say things the pastor would never say? This side of heaven, powerful technology must be applied through the lens of the Bible.

At a more individual level, what happens when artificial intelligence is used to fake the voice of one of your children calling for help when your child is safe? Social media is another powerful technology that can be used for good and evil. The video you posted of your child giving a speech can also be used to get a sample of a child’s voice that, in turn, could be used to scam you through emotional distress. 

The world is constantly changing. We need to teach that the Bible is forever, providing a strong theological foundation so that, whatever comes next, our people are ready to handle it in a Godly manner. None of these technological developments surprised God, but do we really believe and teach that? The Bible teaches the need to discern right from wrong, and yet we are not teaching that same discernment online.

Using AI to strengthen ministry

Other benefits for churches involve data collection and analytics. I’ve written about the data that churches collect and how to keep it safe, but what about using AI to better evaluate that data? Data is fine, but it’s what you do with the data that really matters.

Artificial intelligence can be an ally in this effort by going through data and providing useful information from which to make decisions.

Using AI to help close the proverbial “ministry back door”where people stop attending before leaders realize it. AI can help us better evaluate attendance patterns and changes in involvement, even comparing attendance with giving trends. This information might help us understand who is at risk for leaving the church or struggling in a manner that a call or visit might prove fruitful. What used to be complex and take hours can now be simplified and assessed in real time. 

Copyright and defamation concerns

We have a long way to go to catch up with the advancements artificial intelligence has provided and the law lags these advancements, too. AI has quickly outdated copyright laws. Personal privacy and intellectual property lawsuits are just starting to head to court. Defamation cases are being filed. But in these cases, who’s to blame? The AI? Or those who programmed the AI? The decisions to come will reshape how we know and understand the use of this technology even in church contexts.

Stewarding AI for good

I’m excited about AI’s potential for affecting the Kingdom. 

But, whether with AI, social media, digital projectors, microphones, cameras, or anything else, all new technology requires responsible use. 

Microphones are great, but if you don’t know what you are doing, they will cause piercing feedback. artificial intelligence is also great, but if you don’t know what you are doing, and you aren’t willing to learn, the scale of the feedback could be destructive. 

Jonathan Smith is director of technology for Faith Ministries in Lafayette, Indiana. He is also president of MBS, Inc., a provider of technology services that exclusively serves churches and ministries. He is a published author and a frequent speaker at conferences.

Key Tax Dates September 2023

Key tax dates for September 2023 include quarterly estimated payments and monthly or semiweekly requirements.

Monthly requirements

If your church or organization reported withheld taxes of $50,000 or less during the most recent lookback period (for 2023, the lookback period is July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022), then withheld payroll taxes are deposited monthly. Monthly deposits are due by the 15th day of the following month.

Note, however, that if withheld taxes are less than $2,500 at the end of any calendar quarter (March 31, June 30, September 30, or December 31), the church need not deposit the taxes.

Instead, it can pay the total withheld taxes directly to the IRS with its quarterly Form 941. Withheld taxes include federal income taxes withheld from employee wages, the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Semiweekly requirements

If your church or organization reported withheld taxes of more than $50,000 during the most recent lookback period (for 2023, the lookback period is July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022), then the withheld payroll taxes are deposited semiweekly.

This means that for paydays falling on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, the payroll taxes must be deposited on or by the following Wednesday. For all other paydays, the payroll taxes must be deposited on the Friday following the payday.

Also note that large employers having withheld taxes of $100,000 or more at the end of any day must deposit the taxes by the next banking day.

The deposit days are based on the timing of the employer’s payroll.

Withheld taxes include federal income taxes withheld from employee wages, the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

September 15, 2023: Quarterly estimated tax payments for certain employees and churches

Filing for certain ministers and self-employed workers

Ministers (who have not elected voluntary withholding) and self-employed workers must file their third quarterly estimated federal tax payment for 2023 by this date. A similar rule applies in many states to payments of estimated state taxes.

Nonminister employees of churches that filed a timely Form 8274 (waiving the church’s obligation to withhold and pay FICA taxes) are treated as self-employed for Social Security, and as a result are subject to the estimated tax deadlines with respect to their self-employment (Social Security) taxes unless they ask their employing church to withhold an additional amount of income taxes from each paycheck that will be sufficient to cover self-employment taxes. Use a new Form W-4 to make this request (the additional withholding is reported on line 4(c)).

Payments for unrelated business income tax liability

A church must make quarterly estimated tax payments if it expects an unrelated business income tax liability for the year to be $500 or more. Use IRS Form 990-W to figure your estimated taxes. Quarterly estimated tax payments of one-fourth of the total tax liability are due by April 18 (April 19 if you live in Maine or Massachusetts), June 15, September 15, and December 15, 2023, for churches on a calendar-year basis. Deposit quarterly tax payments electronically using the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS).

Note: If a date listed for filing a return or making a tax payment falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday (either national or statewide in a state where the return is required to be filed), the return or tax payment is due on the following business day.

Note: You must use electronic funds transfer to make all federal employment tax deposits. This is generally done using the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, a free service provided by the US Department of Treasury. If you don’t wish to use EFTPS, you can arrange for your tax professional, financial institution, or payroll service to make deposits on your behalf. Failure to make a timely deposit may subject you to a 10-percent penalty.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

How Churches Can Leverage Higher Interest Rates

Higher interest rates offer churches an opportunity to adopt new cash- and debt-management strategies.

In an era of higher interest rates, it is essential for churches to adopt new cash- and debt-management strategies. 

Seek an increase in savings, money market interest rates

A good first step for churches is to request an increase in the interest rate on their bank’s savings or money market accounts.

By negotiating better rates, churches can see higher yields in support of their mission. 

Beyond that, reassessing cash management strategies is key when interest rates are high.

Get strategic about cashflow

One effective approach is to redirect cash held in an operating account to savings or money market accounts.

Try to place all cash not needed to pay bills in the next 14-30 days into accounts that gain a higher interest rate. Strategically managing cash flow means a church can strike a balance between accessible funds for day-to-day expenses and maximizing the interest earned on their reserves.

Pick up a copy of “Church Finance: The Church Leader’s Guide to Financial Operations,” today at the Church Law & Tax store.

Beef up reserves

Churches looking to build up reserves for future projects should consider investing in bonds or bond mutual funds.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures deposits of up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank.

If the church leaves its cash reserves in one bank, though, it exposes them to risk without the benefit of a higher potential interest rate (banks do not typically pay high interest on cash savings). Instead, investing in bonds or bond mutual funds enables the church to possess investments with a low risk profile but higher returns than cash.  

Bonds typically offer higher interest rates compared to traditional savings accounts, making them attractive investment vehicles.

By carefully selecting bonds based on risk tolerance and investment objectives, churches can secure steady income streams and potentially grow their money to keep up with the rising cost of construction.

Before investing in bonds, be sure you have your board write an investment policy with the advice of a financial professional.

Higher interest rates and debt paydowns

Some churches enter swap agreements with financial institutions—contractual arrangements that typically exchange cash flow or liabilities from two different financial instruments.

For churches with existing swap agreements on their loans, higher interest rates may present an opportunity to pay down debt. Analyze the terms of the swap agreement and consider reducing the outstanding debt if it is advantageous.

In some cases, churches may find themselves in a favorable position, allowing them to receive payments from investors when paying down their debts.  

Again, though, be sure to seek professional advice before moving forward with such a strategy. 

A word of caution

Though higher interest rates may be advantageous for certain financial strategies, it is crucial for churches to exercise caution when taking on additional debt. Rather than focusing on increasing debt, it is advisable to undertake projects that align with the congregation’s regular patterns of giving. 

Capitalizing on higher interest rates will require some strategic thinking and execution. However, it is essential to remember that every church’s financial situation is unique, and professional advice is crucial for tailoring strategies to specific needs. 

Tim Samuel is a CPA and the chief financial officer of Bridgeway Community Church, a nondenominational, multicultural church in Columbia, Maryland, that draws more than 4,000 people each week.

Q&A: Tackling Big-Ticket Repairs on a Housing Allowance

So, you’ve done the hard work of setting a housing allowance and, SURPRISE!, the septic tank fails. What now?

Q: Unplanned repairs are part of homeownership. What can a church do to help with a big-ticket repair that wasn’t anticipated when designating the pastor’s housing allowance?

Let’s assume we’re talking about an $8,000 septic tank replacement. Let’s say the church agrees to increase the housing allowance for the remainder of the year by $8,000. Either the church can designate an additional $8,000 out of the pastor’s salary as housing or the church can give the pastor the $8,000 and call it housing-related.

From a tax perspective, it’s unlikely either approach will actually help.

Why? To understand, it’s necessary to understand how the housing allowance works.

A calculation game

The amount a pastor is allowed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to exclude from income tax as a housing allowance is the smaller of three separate numbers:

  1. The amount the church designates as a housing allowance;
  2. The actual amounts expended on housing during the year, including mortgage payments, property insurance, property tax, utilities, repairs and maintenance, and furnishings; and
  3. The annual fair rental value of the home, plus utilities, plus furnishings.

Returning to the example above, assume that, regardless of which way the $8,000 is handled, the church designated a total housing allowance for the year, including accounting for the septic tank, of $40,000.

Let’s further assume that, at the end of the year, the pastor adds up all of his or her actual housing expenses and the total is $31,000, plus the $8,000 septic tank repair, for total actual housing expenses of $39,000.

Finally, the pastor consults with a local real estate agent and determines that the annual fair rental value of his or her home, including the effect of the new septic system, is $25,000. Add to this amount an additional $3,600 in utilities and $2,400 in furnishings, and the fair rental value, plus utilities, plus furnishings is $30,000. This amount is well below the actual expenditures (when the septic tank is factored in) and the designated housing allowance amount.

The moral of the story is that the fair rental value, plus utilities, plus furnishings is always going to be a hard cap in terms of how much a pastor can exclude from income tax. That’s because this calculation usually comes in as the lowest of the three figures that need to be calculated. As this example illustrates, designating an additional amount as the housing allowance had no impact on the amount the pastor could actually exclude from tax.

‘Better than a stick in the eye’

Here’s another common example: A pastor wants to add a second story to a home at a cost of $60,000. Let’s say this pastor is making $150,000 a year, of which $40,000 is designated as housing allowance. The pastor comes back to the church and asks the church to bump up that housing allowance from $40,000 to $100,000. That may help to a degree, because a two-story house is going to have a higher fair rental value than a one-story house.

But the pastor is not going to get the full benefit that he or she anticipated getting because the fair rental value calculation still will come in below $100,000.

So, does this mean a big ticket expense is not going to really benefit a pastor?

Check out our robust and carefully-curated recommended reading list concerning all-things housing allowance.

As my dad would say, it’s better than a stick in the eye.

But the pastor ordinarily is not going to be made whole in the process from a tax benefit perspective. Subject to the general requirement that a church (or any nonprofit organization) not pay its key employees excessive compensation, the church can still provide more money to the pastor in response to the need. It just means the pastor will pay income tax on the added amount.

It is also useful to point out that, in the example cited above, the church must also consider the reasonableness of the pastor’s overall compensation before providing more money.

Timing also matters

Remember a couple of additional things about how the housing allowance works.

  1. The housing allowance is always a prospective thing. The church must always award or pass a resolution to give a pastor a housing allowance on a prospective basis. It can never be applied retroactively.
  2. When changes to the allowance are needed mid-year, those changes also only take place going forward.

Something attorney and senior editor Richard Hammar deals with in the annual “Church and Clergy Tax Guide” is that we don’t have a lot of guidance from the IRS that explains whether a pastor has to have a match between the time he or she incurred expenses and the time he or she gets paid the allowance.

So, consult with a tax advisor.

Hypothetical scenario: Let’s say a large church adds a new pastor midway through last year but forgets to formally set the new pastor’s housing allowance for the first three months of  the new year. In that scenario, the pastor has made several mortgage payments in the new year without the benefit of the allowance. So, the question becomes whether those mortgage payments are countable in the housing costs for the year. The answer? Consult your tax advisor.

In this scenario, the pastor’s responsibility is to accept the risk that he or she may not be able to claim those mortgage payments, regardless of what the church decides to do.

Again, that’s something the pastor and the pastor’s tax advisor must work out.

On the church’s side, I always tell the church, ‘Hey, you were going to give this (pastor) a $20,000 housing allowance and you didn’t do it in the first six semi-monthly pay periods of the year … let’s take that $20,000 and divide it into the remaining payrolls.’

By doing that, we’re giving the pastor the opportunity to decide, in consultation with a tax advisor, whether he or she wants to include those three months of housing expenses.

Q: Can a church declare 100 percent of a pastor’s compensation to be a housing allowance?

There is no legal impediment to do so, although it’s not advisable.

That’s because you’re relying on the pastor and his or her tax advisor to know the rules and exclude the proper amount. You’ve set them up to make a mistake.

In addition, if you offer benefits, such as health insurance for which the pastor must pay a portion, a healthcare flexible spending account, or a 403(b) plan with elective deferrals, the pastor must have cash salary, not housing allowance, from which to deduct these withholdings.

So, as a practical matter, declaring 100 percent of a pastor’s compensation to be a housing allowance would compromise participation in these benefit programs.

Ted R. Batson Jr. is a CPA and tax attorney, and serves as a partner and Professional Practice Leader – Tax for CapinCrouse LLP, a national CPA and consulting firm. He speaks and teaches frequently for national conferences and organizations on exempt organization and charitable giving matters.

Fed Rolls Out New Form I-9, Sunsets Key COVID-19 Deferment

The new Form I-9 is for churches, too, and remote examination is an option.

All employers, including churches, are to begin using a new Form I-9, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced in late July.

Form I-9 is required of employers to verify the identity and the employment authorization of their employees to work in the country.

The new form became available August 1, 2023, and allows certain qualifying employers an alternative way of examining identifying documents for new employees using E-Verify.

According to the Homeland Security Department rule, to use E-Verify, an employer must be an E-Verify participant in good standing, which is defined as:

  • An employer that has enrolled in E-Verify with respect to all hiring sites in the U.S. that use the alternative procedure;
  • is compliant with all requirements of the E-Verify program including but not limited to verifying the employment eligibility of newly hired employees in the U.S.;
  • continues to be a participant in good standing in E-Verify at any time during which the employer uses the alternative procedure.

The agency also announced other key changes likely affecting most, if not all, employers, including many churches.

Sunset of COVID-19 verification flexibility

One such change: the sunsetting of a COVID-19-era deferment for employers that allowed remote verification of employee I-9 documentation.

Starting July 31, 2023, employers have 30 days to comply with traditional Form I-9 requirements for employees whose I-9 documents were remotely verified between March 20, 2020, and July 31, 2023.

For employers that are not eligible to participate in the alternative inspection process via E-Verify, this means all I-9 documents remotely inspected under COVID-19 flexibilities must be physically inspected, in-person, by August 30, 2023.

Old form I-9 valid through Oct. 31, 2023

Employers may continue using the old Form I–9 (Rev. 10/21/19) through October 31, 2023, as they adjust to the agency’s various changes.

However, starting November 1, 2023, employers who fail to use the new form may be subject to all applicable penalties under the Immigration and Nationality Act as enforced by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Important: Employers do not need to complete the new Form I–9 (Rev. 08/01/23) for employees who already have a properly completed Form I–9 on file, unless reverification applies after October 31, 2023.

Key revisions and updates

Several other revisions made by the agency are designed to ease burdens on employers and employees, including:

  • The new form can be completed on tablets and mobile devices.
  • The new form comes with fewer instruction pages.
  • Instructions include how to use a new checkbox for employers who choose to examine Form I–9 documentation under an alternative procedure.
  • Reduced Sections 1 and 2 to a single-sided sheet. No previous fields were removed. Rather, multiple fields were merged into fewer fields when possible.
  • Moved the Section 1 Preparer/Translator Certification area to a separate, standalone supplement (Supplement A) that employers can provide to employees when necessary. Employers may attach additional supplement sheets as needed.
  • Moved the Section 3 Reverification and Rehire area to a separate, standalone supplement (Supplement B) that employers can print if or when rehire occurs or reverification is required. Employers may attach additional supplement sheets as necessary.
  • Removed use of “alien authorized to work” in Section 1 and replaced it with “noncitizen authorized to work” as well as clarified the difference between “noncitizen national” and “noncitizen authorized to work.”
  • Removed certain features to ensure the form can be downloaded easily. This also removes the requirement to enter “n/a” in certain fields.
  • Updated the notice at the top of the Form I–9 that explains how to avoid discrimination in the Form I–9 process.
  • Revised the Lists of Acceptable Documents page to include some acceptable receipts as well as guidance and links to information on automatic extensions of employment authorization documentation.
  • Added a box that eligible employers must check if the employee’s Form I–9 documentation was examined under a DHS-authorized alternative procedure rather than via physical examination.

More about the new form I-9

The new form contains two sections and two supplements:

  • Section 1 of the form collects, at the time of hire, identifying information about the employee (and preparer or translator if used), and requires the employee to attest to whether the employee is a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national, lawful permanent resident, or noncitizen authorized to work in the United States.
  • Section 2 of the form collects, within three days of the employee’s hire, identifying information about the employer and information regarding the employee’s identity and employment authorization. The employee must present original documentation evidencing the employee’s identity and employment authorization, which the employer must review.
  • Supplement A, Preparer and/or Translator Certification for Section 1, is completed when employees have preparers or translators assist them in completing Section 1 of Form I–9.
  • Supplement B, Reverification and Rehire (formerly Section 3), is primarily used to verify the continued employment authorization of the employee.

This Supplement is completed prior to the date that the employee’s employment authorization or employment authorization documentation recorded in either Section 1 or Section 2 of the form expires, if applicable.

It may also be used if the employee is rehired within three years of the date of the initial completion of the form and to record a name change.

Record retention policy

An employer must maintain Forms I–9 for as long as individuals work for the employer and for the required retention period after the termination of an individual’s employment (either three years after the date of hire or one year after the date employment ended, whichever is later).

Also, employers must make their employees’ Forms I–9 available for inspection upon request by Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Immigrant and Employee Rights Section (IER) in the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and the US Department of Labor.

An employer’s failure to ensure proper completion and retention of Forms I–9 may subject the employer to civil money penalties, and, in some cases, criminal penalties.

Visit I-9 Central for more information.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

Key Tax Dates August 2023

Key tax dates include filing Form 941, and meeting certain monthly or semiweekly filing requirements.

Monthly requirements

If your church or organization reported withheld taxes of $50,000 or less during the most recent lookback period (for 2023, the lookback period is July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022), then withheld payroll taxes are deposited monthly. Monthly deposits are due by the 15th day of the following month.

Note, however, that if withheld taxes are less than $2,500 at the end of any calendar quarter (March 31, June 30, September 30, or December 31), the church or organization need not deposit the taxes.

Instead, it can pay the total withheld taxes directly to the IRS with its quarterly Form 941. Withheld taxes include federal income taxes withheld from employee wages, the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Semiweekly requirements

If your church or organization reported withheld taxes of more than $50,000 during the most recent lookback period (for 2023, the lookback period is July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021), then the withheld payroll taxes are deposited semiweekly.

Tip: Wondering if you’ve missed any key tax dates so far this year, visit our Tax Calendar to read (and download) each of our 2023 key tax date updates. all 2023 key tax dates.

This means that for paydays falling on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, the payroll taxes must be deposited on or by the following Wednesday. For all other paydays, the payroll taxes must be deposited on the Friday following the payday.

Note further that large employers having withheld taxes of $100,000 or more at the end of any day must deposit the taxes by the next banking day. The deposit days are based on the timing of the employer’s payroll. Withheld taxes include federal income taxes withheld from employee wages, the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

August 10, 2023: Employer’s quarterly federal tax return—Form 941

Churches having nonminister employees (or one or more ministers who report their federal income taxes as employees and who have elected voluntary withholding) may file their employer’s quarterly federal tax return (Form 941) by this date instead of July 31 if all taxes for the second calendar quarter have been deposited in full and on time.

Note: If a date listed for filing a return or making a tax payment falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday (either national or statewide in a state where the return is required to be filed), the return or tax payment is due on the following business day.

Note: You must use electronic funds transfer to make all federal employment tax deposits. This is generally done using the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, a free service provided by the US Department of Treasury. If you don’t wish to use EFTPS, you can arrange for your tax professional, financial institution, or payroll service to make deposits on your behalf. Failure to make a timely deposit may subject you to a 10-percent penalty.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

Crafting an Employee Discipline Process

An employee discipline process is a solid first step addressing performance-related issues.

Crafting and implementing an employee discipline process at your church is does not demonstrate poor confidence or some admission of anticipated failure. Rather, it is a way of building solid ground rules for when employee performance issues inevitably arise.

Every employer has the best of intentions when they hire someone, and employers always try to hire the most qualified individuals who will fit within the employer’s culture and immediately exceed expectations. Churches are no exception.

But the reality is some new employees do not perform—or fit in—as expected. Other employees miss the mark even years after their start dates.

Whether the “nirvana” of a new hire fades, a veteran employee begins repeatedly falling short, personality conflicts arise, or an outside factor—such as an arrest—surfaces, the employer must address poor performance or missed behavioral standards.

Here’s what to do when discipline is needed.

Employee discipline requires solid ground rules

A church should first clearly communicate the rules it intends to enforce against employees who fail to meet expectations.

The job description and employee handbook establish these expectations. The job description describes performance expectations of the position, while the employee handbook describes the behavioral rules applicable to all employees.

Caution. When the church communicates through job descriptions and an employee handbook, it must be careful not to unintentionally create a contractual obligation with employees.

The employee handbook should also contain the disciplinary rules applicable to all employees.

Employee discipline begins by addressing minor infractions and progresses to more serious ones.

A typical employee handbook provision might say:

Violation of church policies and rules might warrant disciplinary action. Forms of discipline that the church may elect include verbal corrections, written warnings, final written warnings, and/or suspensions and terminations. The system is not formal, and the church may, in its sole and absolute discretion, deviate from any written disciplinary policy and utilize appropriate forms of discipline under the circumstances, including immediate termination. The church’s disciplinary policy does not limit or alter the employee’s at-will status.

Disciplinary systems

While a progressive discipline system remains the most popular disciplinary system, smaller employers frequently favor a corrective disciplinary system.

In other words, the supervisor selects the type of discipline based on the facts and circumstances of the situation. While this system is more flexible than the progressive discipline system, churches must use extra caution to ensure that similarly situated employees get treated similarly.

Read more about how a religious school could be sued for unlawfully terminating the employment of an unmarried pregnant teacher after the court determined the school lacked a policy regarding sex outside marriage and failed to investigate past treatment of similarly situated employees accused of similar conduct.

The disciplinary system also should avoid certain words that require a church to act in a certain way.

When an employee fails to meet expected levels of performance or behavior, the church typically uses one of four types of discipline.

Verbal counseling. This method allows the supervisor to address the issue immediately with the employee. In every case, the supervisor should create a written memo or note for placement in the employee’s file. This documentation is critical. If it is not in the employee’s file, it is as if the issue never happened.

Written warning. The supervisor should meet with the employee and another employer representative to discuss the issue. The church should allow the employee to review the formal written warning. The written warning should have a place for the employee to sign, demonstrating that the employee received a copy. If the employee refuses to sign, the other employer representative should sign as a witness that the employee refused to sign the written warning.

A written warning should include, at a minimum: the date of the warning, the employee’s name, the name of the supervisor, a factual description of the misconduct or inadequate performance, the exact date of the misconduct or inadequate performance, the signature line for the employee, the signature line for the supervisor, and the signature line for the witness. 

As a separate document, the supervisor may attach an action plan for correcting the issue.

The action plan should include a statement of the policy or practice that was violated, the steps the employee agrees to take to correct the problem, any commitments the supervisor makes to assist the employee in achieving the correction, the timeframe for correcting the problem, and the consequences for failing to correct the problem within the set timeframe.

Suspension. If the suspension is the prelude to a subsequent termination, the supervisor should include a written warning and an action plan with the notice of suspension.

Termination. Before terminating an employee, senior management should review the entire personnel file of the employee. Under some limited circumstances, the church should immediately terminate the offending employee.

For example, if the employee exhibits violent behavior or drug or alcohol use while working, the employer should immediately terminate the employee. Termination should occur through an in-person meeting.

Senior management and the supervisor should be present. Senior management should request that the information technology team change all of the employee’s passwords and computer and network access during the meeting.

In the meeting, senior management should request the return of all the church’s property. Ideally, senior management should present the employee with his or her final paycheck during the meeting.

Selecting the right discipline

When selecting a course of disciplinary action, the supervisor should consider the facts and circumstances surrounding the need for discipline. The supervisor should evaluate both mitigating and aggravating factors.

Mitigating factors may include:

  • Long tenure
  • Long history of satisfactory performance
  • Prior commendations or awards
  • Any excuses offered by the employee

Aggravating factors could include:

  • Short tenure
  • History of unsatisfactory performance
  • Prior discipline
  • The degree to which the employee has responded with a denial of responsibility

The supervisor should check with senior management or the human resources department, if applicable, before disciplining an employee.

Senior management should review the employee’s prior disciplinary history, if applicable.

Employee discipline should be as consistent as possible for similar infractions. Senior management should search the church’s records to determine how it has addressed similar situations with other employees, past and present. 

Senior management should consider any harm associated with discharging or severely disciplining the employee for a particular offense.

They should also consider whether the employee is part of a protected class of employees and whether the employee might have a claim that the discipline is retaliation for protected activities, such as whistleblowing.

If any of these factors are present, senior management should consult with an attorney.


If the termination option is selected, the church should consider whether the release agreement is appropriate. A release is probably unnecessary if the employer has appropriately executed and documented the discipline. 

If severance pay is provided, the church should consider a release.

Frank Sommerville partnered with Church Law & Tax to develop a seven-part series dedicated to helping you navigate several employee issues that are unique to churches. Find them all here:

Frank Sommerville is a both a CPA and attorney, and a longtime Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax.

Charitable Giving Trends Return to Pre-COVID Levels

Charitable giving trends resemble those of pre-COVID days as larger donors assume a larger share of the giving pie.

Charitable giving trends are returning to pre-COVID patterns, according to an Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) report.

Pulling from quarterly snapshot data compiled by IndependentSector.org, ECFA highlights a key point: as pandemic-era needs waned in 2022, non-profit giving trends followed along, particularly from small-dollar ($500 or less) donors, who are giving less than they did before the pandemic.

But while small- and micro-donors ($100 or less) are fewer in number, overall donations saw a 7 percent jump in the second quarter of 2022, signaling a return to dependence on midsize ($500-$5K), Major ($5K-$50K) and Supersize ($50K) donors.

The ECFA study notes that pandemic-era giving spiked as charities became more and more visible in their communities. As the pandemic has waned, so has the visibility, and the motivation to give.

Consider a Church Law & Tax basic or advantage membership today.

That, along with fewer tax incentives and higher inflation, is having a chilling effect, too, especially on small- and micro-donors.

Other key insights from the IndependentSector study:

  1. U.S. nonprofits pumped $1.5 trillion into the economy in 1Q23
  2. Trust in non-profits dropped from 59% to 56% from 2020 to 2022
  3. Overall, the number of donors dropped by 10% in 2022

For Church Law & Tax members: Soliciting donations is a crucial—and complicated—part of managing a church’s finances. It’s a fact highlighted in a legal development out of Michigan. That’s where a church sued the archdiocese for soliciting donations for one thing only to turn and use it for something else.

Church Law & Tax Editor and Attorney-at-Law Matthew Branaugh explains:

When a Michigan archdiocese used contributions to settle a sex abuse claim, church members sued. The ongoing court battle underscores some key facts every church leader should understand.

Generative AI Is All the Rage. Handle With Care.

Generative AI is all the rage and church leaders may want to dive right in. But be cautious–there are a lot of unknowns.

Editors’ Note: We updated this content on July 25, 2023, with additional information along with comments from Jonathan Smith, president of technology consulting firm MBS, Inc., and director of technology for Faith Ministries in Indiana.

A year ago, few knew the term “generative AI (artificial intelligence).”

Fewer could define it.

Today, it’s leading the conversation. OpenAI’s fast-spreading ChatGPT and DALL-E, Google’s Bard, Meta’s LLaMA, and Microsoft’s ChatGPT-powered Bing have quickly put these language-based chatbots into the mainstream.

Exponential growth

ChatGPT surged past 100 million users less than two months after its November 2022 debut. Facebook, by contrast, took four-and-a-half years to surpass the same mark.

Even with preliminary signs of slowing growth, many agree these chatbots are here to stay. As one technologist observed in Harvard Business Review, “We are at the beginning of another technological revolution.”

With such a revolution underway, church leaders should keep some legal and risk management considerations in mind, including intellectual property, misinformation, privacy, defamation, cybersecurity—and even hiring.

Another tool—but not just any tool

Technology in ministry has evolved a lot over the past 25 years. Some leaders recall debating how their churches should build their websites.

From there, text-based messaging and church management software appeared.

Soon after, social media sites and online giving tools popped into focus.

A Pastor’s Take: Lead Not Your Church into Fear of AI

Then came smart phone apps to handle anything from communications to donations to administrative tasks.

Generative AI is different not only for what it does, but also in how quickly it evolves.

“Generative AI systems fall under the broad category of machine learning,” notes global consulting giant McKinsey & Company. McKinsey then asked ChatGPT to describe itself: “This nifty form of machine learning allows computers to generate all sorts of new and exciting content, from music and art to entire virtual worlds,” the resulting response said.

Learning as it goes

In other words, chatbots learn from questions and information submitted by users through a simple chat box, the chatbots’ own online searches, and user feedback. They then create new and better content for future queries.

The process is a self-perpetuating, iterative loop.

For instance, ChatGPT 3.5—launched in November of 2022—was already significantly inferior when ChatGPT 4 released just four months later.

To illustrate, ChatGPT 3.5 scored in the 10th percentile for the Uniform Bar Exam used by many states to license attorneys. ChatGPT 4 scored in the 80th percentile.

Such rapid change has triggered much wonder regarding storytelling, art, music, and more.

It also has generated much concern, ranging from cybersecurity threats (such as more sophisticated phishing and malware) to school cheating to existential threats to humans.

Does all this talk of gen AI have you thinking about other IT-related issues? Consider picking up a copy of Nick Nicholaou’s “Church IT.

Church leaders should start thinking now about how these content-creating chatbots will shape their ministries, whether driven through their own initiatives or thrust upon them by outside forces.

Here are some early considerations to note:

Intellectual property

Churches and pastors create lots of original content. Sermons. Children’s plays. Worship music. Website fodder. Social media posts.

Looking to generative AI chatbots for help requires extreme caution, though. Chatbots aren’t necessarily pulling together fully original creations. As they scour sources provided by a user, as well as readily available information online, they can easily grab material verbatim as they go.

Think About It: Christians are asking ChatGPT about God. Is this different than Googling?

That means chatbots most likely are grabbing and using pieces of works owned by other people or companies. Any resulting uses very likely violate copyright law—and courts have found that can be true even if duplications involve only a few notes or phrases.

Leaders must recognize the potential perils involved with instructing a chatbot to create a sermon about, say, The Beatitudes. Or to orchestrate a worship song based on the influences of current chart-setters. Or to generate a script for a Christmas pageant.

Not a ‘super search engine’

In a white paper, OpenAI openly discusses the way ChatGPT “hallucinates” as it works—another way of saying the chatbot sometimes creates fictitious details to support the task it was given.

One New York lawyer learned this the hard way. He asked ChatGPT to write a brief on behalf of a client suing an airline. He submitted the document. When the airline’s lawyers couldn’t locate any of the cases, the court asked for more information. Turns out, the brief cited fabricated cases and statutes to try and support the client’s case.

The attorney, facing sanctions, said he believed ChatGPT operated like “a super search engine.” It doesn’t. Leaders again must carefully vet what a chatbot produces for most any task.

Subtle inaccuracies are as much a threat as outright fabrications, too.

Here’s an example:

We asked ChatGPT 4 to write about NFL quarterback John Elway’s greatest game. The chatbot quickly answered Super Bowl XXXII, the hall-of-famer’s first championship win. It supported its response with his game statistics, but erroneously listed ones he earned a year later during his team’s Super Bowl XXXIII victory.


Generative AI also poses potential defamation concerns.

In June of 2023, a Georgia radio host sued ChatGPT. A journalist-generated query produced a ChatGPT response that included a legal complaint about the host, and allegations he embezzled from a gun-rights group. The legal complaint, though, was fake, another example of a chatbot providing unpredictable—if not false—information.

This situation also reveals other ways churches and pastors may encounter less-than-ideal situations with the technology, says Jonathan Smith, president of technology consulting firm MBS, Inc., and director of technology for Faith Ministries in Indiana.

A generative AI query using your church’s name, or your pastor’s name, will draw from myriad sources, including negative posts, comments, or social media across the web.

It also could do damage in unexpected ways. “Generative AI has no intuition, no understanding,” Smith says, adding “it will draw the conclusion your church or your pastor is bad.”


OpenAI discovered a bug with ChatGPT that exposed user chat histories along with payment and contact information for some of OpenAI’s premium subscribers. The problem was fixed. But when users now sign up, they see an onscreen message warning them about the sharing of any sensitive or personal information.

For churches, this again provides an important reminder about getting consent from congregants before publicly sharing prayer requests.

A well-meaning pastor or staff member, crafting the next church website update or e-newsletter, might contemplate pouring the text of requests into a chatbot to create the message. Doing so places potentially sensitive information about individuals into the chatbot. The public disclosure of private facts is the basis of an “invasion of privacy” lawsuit.

Lack of user support and feedback

There isn’t an immediate remedy available.

A user can submit feedback indicating a response contains faulty or false information. But, as Smith points out, other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram struggle to keep up with user feedback, and ChatGPT and its peers likely will, too.

But leaders should still note this added concern from generative AI’s unpredictability. Exercise extreme caution especially before using any AI-generated responses containing information about other church and ministry leaders.


The powerful learning fostered by generative AI offers possibilities for good, including medical imaging and weather forecasting. There are also possibilities for more sophisticated crime. One cybersecurity company executive told the ABA Journal “you’re going to see phishing emails that are so believable you don’t know you’re talking with a machine.”

These schemes use an email to impersonate someone with authority and trick the recipient to click a malicious link or transfer funds to an unauthorized bank account. A misstep can prove costly. Education, training, and best practices can help pastors and staff thwart these attempts.

On the positive side, new generative AI tools are available to determine whether a message originated from a person or a chatbot, including one from OpenAI (note, however, that it requires a minimum of 1,000 characters to analyze).  

Job applications, references, and schoolwork

Does your church ask job applicants for responses to short-answer questions? What about recommendations from past employers or professional references?

Does your church run a school and regularly grade schoolwork?

Note the developing tools for sorting out original content from computer-generated content, which is becoming an industry unto itself.

Matthew Branaugh is an attorney, and the content editor for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax.

A Pair of Noteworthy Supreme Court Decisions For Church Leaders

A pair of Supreme Court decisions are noteworthy for church leaders and bivocational pastors.

A pair of noteworthy Supreme Court decisions are worth reviewing for church leaders, and bivocational pastors and church planters working secular jobs.

The first, Groff v. DeJoy, represents a significant shift in the way employers treat religious accommodation requests under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bottom line? Employers face a higher standard when rejecting such requests, meaning employees enjoy greater protection when they come across work situations that clash with their religious beliefs and convictions.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of a Colorado web designer who worried the state would use its anti-discrimination laws to force her to create websites celebrating marriages she does not endorse (303 Creative LLC v. Elenis). It’s an outcome that underscores the possible ways a church can assert First Amendment defenses if the church falls under a state or local public accommodations law and gets penalized for violating the law due to its religious activities.

For members, Church Law & Tax Co-Founder and Senior Editor Richard Hammar, and Church Law & Tax Editor and Attorney-at-Law Matthew Branaugh joined forces to highlight what these important cases mean for churches and church leaders, alike:

Supreme Court Sides With Colorado Web Designer’s Free Speech Claim

Lorie Smith worried Colorado would use its anti-discrimination laws to force her to create websites celebrating marriages she does not endorse.

The First Amendment’s guaranty of free speech prohibits a Colorado public accommodations law from forcing a website designer with Christian beliefs to create messages with which she disagrees, the United States Supreme Court ruled.

A 6-3 majority favored the designer in its decision published in June of 2023 (303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, 600 U.S. ___). Although the ruling drew from speech—rather than religious—protections found in the First Amendment, the outcome represents another in a long line of victories for religious liberty proponents dating back more than a decade.

Churches and church leaders will find the 303 Creative ruling important in at least one way. It demonstrates the possible ways a church can assert First Amendment defenses if the church falls under a state or local public accommodations law and gets penalized for violating the law due to its religious activities.

‘A credible threat’ of penalty

The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) bars places of public accommodation from discriminating based on disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, national origin, or ancestry in the provision of goods and services to the public.

The law first drew attention from the Supreme Court several years ago. That’s when Colorado’s civil rights division sanctioned a bakery owner for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. Lower courts affirmed the state’s actions.

But in 2018, a 7-2 ruling from the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions and returned the case to Colorado for reconsideration. The court said the record showed the civil rights division exhibited hostility toward the baker’s religious beliefs, violating his constitutional rights (Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018)).

During the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation, the website designer filed her lawsuit. She became worried CADA would require her to create wedding websites for same-sex couples, which goes against her religious beliefs.

The state had yet to sanction her. But her lawsuit was allowed to proceed because she established “a credible threat that . . . Colorado will invoke CADA to force her to create speech she does not believe or endorse,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion.

Such a threat violated the designer’s free speech rights, the Court decided.

“[I]n this particular case Colorado does not just seek to ensure the sale of goods or services on equal terms,” the Court held. “It seeks to use its law to compel an individual to create speech she does not believe.”

The Court also ruled that “no public accommodations law is immune from the demands of the Constitution . . . and when a state public accommodations law and the Constitution collide, there can be no question which must prevail.”

Creating customized messages

The designer operates a graphic design business. She wanted to expand it to include services for couples seeking websites for their weddings. Her websites will provide couples with text, graphic arts, and videos to “celebrate” and “convey” the “details” of their “unique love story.”

A created website will be “expressive in nature,” designed “to communicate a particular message.” That message includes how the couple met, their backgrounds, and their families. It also includes their future plans and information about their upcoming wedding.

All text and graphics will be “original,” “customized,” and “tailored” creations.

The designer’s company name will also appear on every web page created.

The designer said her graphic design business is open to customers regardless of their race, creed, sex, or sexual orientation.

But by expanding her company’s services to include wedding websites, she worried Colorado’s public accommodations law would “force her to convey messages inconsistent with her belief that marriage should be reserved to unions between one man and one woman,” the Court noted.

The designer acknowledged her views about marriage may be unpopular.

But, the Court said, she insisted the Constitution protects such a view.

A district court rejected the designer’s claims. A federal appeals court affirmed the district court’s decision. The designer then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s decision

The Supreme Court began its majority opinion by noting if there is any “fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” it is the principle that the government may not interfere with “an uninhibited marketplace of ideas.” West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 642 (1943).

The Court continued:

The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to speak his mind regardless of whether the government considers his speech sensible and well-intentioned or deeply “misguided,” and likely to cause “anguish” or “incalculable grief.” And equally, the First Amendment protects acts of expressive association. . . . Generally, too, the government may not compel a person to speak its own preferred messages.

The Court noted the designer’s unique, customized wedding websites qualified as “pure speech,” entitling her to the maximum protection under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, and concluded:

In this case, Colorado seeks to force an individual to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience about a matter of major significance. In the past other States … have similarly tested the First Amendment’s boundaries by seeking to compel speech they thought vital at the time. But, as this Court has long held, the opportunity to think for ourselves and to express those thoughts freely is among our most cherished liberties and part of what keeps our Republic strong. Of course, abiding the Constitution’s commitment to the freedom of speech means all of us will encounter ideas we consider “unattractive,” “misguided, or even hurtful.” But tolerance, not coercion, is our Nation’s answer. The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands. Because Colorado seeks to deny that promise, the [district court’s] judgment is reversed.

Relevance to church leaders

This case protects Christian business owners from potential liability under public accommodations laws when goods or services involve speech.

But there is another aspect of this ruling that may be of even greater importance to churches. The Court majority emphasized that constitutional protections will prevail anytime they “collide” with a state public accommodations law. This is especially notable, given the uncertainties that often arise for churches whose activities may or may not fall under state and local public accommodations laws.

The first public accommodations laws were enacted by a few states in the late 19th century. That number has steadily increased and by 2023 most states have enacted such a law.

But public accommodations laws vary by state. To illustrate:

  • All public accommodation laws bar places of public accommodation from discriminating against patrons based on several enumerated categories, including some, or all of, the following: race, color, national origin, gender, religion, disability, marital status, and sexual orientation.
  • In recent years, a growing number of state public accommodation laws have banned discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, and sexual identity. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “18 jurisdictions prohibit discrimination based on marital status, 25 prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, [and] 24 prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.”
  • Some state laws exempt religious organizations, but others contain no explicit exemption.

Many pastors employed by conservative congregations worry public accommodations laws may be used to compel them to accommodate persons who do not share the church’s biblical worldview or values.

Learn more: Search public accommodations laws, including ones affecting your church, through Church Law & Tax’s 50-State Public Accommodations Laws Report, a downloadable resource.

An oft-mentioned concern pertains to the use of church property. To illustrate, assume that a church with an orthodox view of marriage and human sexuality rents its sanctuary to the public as a means of raising revenue.

A gay couple contacts the pastor requesting use of the sanctuary for their wedding.

Does the fact that the church rents its sanctuary to the public make it a place of public accommodation and subject the church to liability if it rejects the gay couple?

After the 303 Creative decision, if a state or local public accommodations law is defined to include churches, or if such a law is construed by a court or administrative agency to include them, churches now can assert a constitutional defense to coverage based on the First Amendment’s free exercise or nonestablishment of religion and free speech clauses.

Dig Deeper:Public Accommodations Laws”—part of Church Law & Tax’s series on “15 Things Richard Hammar Wants Pastors to Know,” looks more closely at the application of public accommodations laws to churches and clergy.

Prior to any actions taken by a court or administrative agency, though, church leaders should review the following seven questions, preferably in consultation with qualified legal counsel. Doing so will help identify potential legal liabilities, and possible ways to minimize those liabilities:

Is there a public accommodations law in my city or state?

  • If so, what types of discrimination does it prohibit?
  • Does the law provide an exemption for churches?
  • If the law provides an exemption for churches, are there any conditions that must be satisfied?
  • If the law does not contain an explicit exemption for churches, what is the official position of the civil rights agency tasked with enforcement of the law? Does the agency take the position that churches are exempt? And if so, do any conditions apply? For example, does the exemption apply to churches that rent their properties to raise revenue?
  • If a state or local civil rights agency tasked with enforcement of a public accommodations law claims that it applies to churches that are engaged in commercial or other activities unrelated to exempt religious purposes, does church coverage only apply during the use of church property for the unrelated purpose, or more broadly to include all uses of church property?
  • Does the church’s constitutional rights of religion and speech take priority over a public accommodations law?

303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, 600 U.S. ___ (2023)

Matthew Branaugh, attorney and editor of Church Law & Tax, contributed to this report.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

Supreme Court’s ‘Groff’ Decision Makes It Harder to Reject Religious Accommodations Requests

Bivocational pastors and church planters working secular jobs should pay attention to what the Groff decision means.

An employer that receives an employee’s religious accommodation request under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must work to grant it unless the employer can demonstrate it would cause a substantially negative result to its business.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion.

Greater protections for religious beliefs, practices

For more than 45 years, lower courts have referenced a lower standard employers could use to evaluate religiously affiliated requests, which made it easier for employers to reject those requests.

The Court’s new clarification (Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. ____ (2023)) provides greater protections for employees who encounter work situations that potentially clash with their religious beliefs and practices, including wearing specific religious attire and Sabbath observation.

Bivocational pastors and church planters especially will find the outcome helpful as they juggle ministry work with secular employment.

But it’s important to also note the standard only applies to employers subject to Title VII—those engaged in interstate commerce and having at least 15 employees.

Background Reading: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits covered employers from discriminating against any employee on account of the employee’s religion. Employers are required to “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious practices, so long as they can do so without undue hardship on the conduct of their business. Many states’ civil rights laws have a similar provision.

While the latest ruling doesn’t ensure every accommodation request will be granted, it does ensure an employer can’t reject one unless it demonstrates a substantial burden “in the overall context of [its] business” would arise by granting it, wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the Court.

More than ‘de minimis’

Alito wrote that most lower courts have incorrectly “latched on to ‘de minimis’ as the governing standard” for evaluating religious accommodation requests.

The term “de minimis” (very small or trifling), was briefly mentioned in a 1977 Supreme Court ruling involving an airline worker who sought a religious accommodation under Title VII (Hardison v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 432 U.S. 63 (1977)).

Though the Court favored the airline in Hardison, the Court’s majority was more focused on “undue hardship” for its analysis—language drawn from Title VII itself, Justice Alito wrote.

Even the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has interpreted Hardison’s outcome to mean “more than a ‘de minimis cost’ test,” he added.

Subsequent lower court decisions nevertheless embraced the “de minimis test,” Justice Alito continued, which “has blessed the denial of even minor accommodation in many cases, making it harder for members of minority faiths to enter the job market.”

Groff asked for Sundays off

Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who worked for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in Pennsylvania.

After his USPS office began handling Sunday deliveries for Amazon in 2013, Groff—who wished to follow the Bible’s teaching about not working on the Sabbath—requested and received a transfer to an office unaffected by the Amazon relationship.

About four years later, though, Groff’s new post office also began making Sunday deliveries for Amazon. Groff was told he was required to work Sundays.

Groff made informal arrangements to cover shifts, but eventually sought a religious accommodation. While his lawyer conceded the request was never rejected, Groff believed it was denied in practice, including through the receiving of discipline.

The USPS contended Groff’s request created turmoil at the post office, including one mail carrier’s decision to quit and another’s decision to seek union help. Groff quit and filed his lawsuit soon after.

The Court in Groff declined to rule on whether USPS showed a substantial burden arose from Groff’s request. Instead, it sent the case back to the lower courts to decide it.

The Court also declined to specify “what an employer must prove to defend a denial of a religious accommodation,” Justice Alito said. “(B)ut we think it reasonable to begin with Title VII’s text … the key statutory term is ‘undue hardship.’ In common parlance, a ‘hardship’ is, at a minimum, ‘something hard to bear.’ Random House Dictionary of the English Language 646 (1966) (Random House). Other definitions go further.”   

Alito continued: “So considering ordinary meaning while taking Hardison as a given, we are pointed toward something closer to Hardison’s reference to ‘substantial additional costs’ or ‘substantial expenditures.’”

Such considerations should take “into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer,’” Justice Alito said.

A caution about ‘undue hardships’

The Court also noted certain “undue hardships” that employers cannot use.

“(A) hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered ‘undue,’” Justice Alito explained. “If bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation provided a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim, Title VII would be at war with itself.”

EXAMPLE 1. Pastor Craig is the pastor of a small church. To augment his compensation, he decides to look for a job with a secular employer. After a few months of searching he finds a position with Amazon as a driver. However, Amazon decides not to hire him when it discovers that he would not be able to work on Sundays because of his pastoral duties at the church. Craig sues Amazon for violating Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination in employment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has made it unlawful for covered employers to “refuse to hire” any individual because of such individual’s religion. Under Title VII, employers are required to “accommodate” the “reasonable religious needs” of employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on them. In the past, an undue hardship was interpreted to mean “more than a de minimis (i.e., minimal) cost” to an employer for accommodating an employee’s religious practices. But as the US Supreme Court now recognizes, such an interpretation is meaningless since a “minimal cost” would be present in virtually every case, meaning that employers would not need to accommodate the religious practices of employees. The Court invalidated this interpretation in the Groff ruling, and replaced it with a new one: “We hold that showing more than a de minimis cost . . . does not suffice to establish undue hardship under Title VII. . . . Undue hardship is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. . . . This fact-specific inquiry . . . comports with . . . the meaning of undue hardship in ordinary speech.”

The key point is that it will be more difficult for employers to avoid a duty to accommodate employee religious practices under the Court’s new definition of undue hardship.

EXAMPLE 2. Same facts as the previous example, except that Pastor Craig was hired by a local business with 10 employees. It is important to point out that Title VII only applies to employers having 15 or more employees. So, in this example, Title VII would not apply, meaning that Pastor Craig could not sue the prospective employer for religious discrimination under federal law. Note, however, that several states have similar laws to Title VII, and these laws generally require fewer than 15 employees to apply.

Church Law & Tax Co-Founder and Senior Editor Richard R. Hammar contributed to this report.

Matthew Branaugh is an attorney, and the content editor for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax.

Colorado Supreme Court Overturns Part of Sexual Abuse Claims Law

The Colorado Supreme Court says the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act goes against the state’s constitution.

In June of 2023, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a portion of the state’s Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act (“CSAAA” or “the Act”) violates the state’s constitution.

The court specifically struck down a portion of the law allowing certain lawsuits otherwise barred by the statute of limitations.

Prior to CSAAA’s passage, Colorado law only permitted claims for six years after they occurred or for the six years after a victim either turned 18 or discovered (often through counseling) that they had been abused.

Law expanded victims’ rights

Colorado lawmakers passed the CSAAA in July of 2021 for victims of sexual misconduct while participating in a youth-related activity or program. It took effect on January 1, 2022.

Victims can bring civil claims for damages against their abusers and the organizations that managed the activities or programs if the organizations knew or should have known about the risk of sexual misconduct.

CSAAA also established a three-year window for victims to bring forward claims that allegedly occurred between January 1, 1960, and January 1, 2022. The Act said claims could be made between January 1, 2022, and January 1, 2025, regardless of whether previously available causes of action were barred by a statute of limitations.

Additionally, the law established other significant rights.

First, the Act said “(t)here is no limitation on the time to bring a claim for sexual misconduct that occurs on or after January 1, 2022.” Second, the law voids “purported pre-incident waivers” as a matter of public policy, meaning victims no longer can be asked by an alleged abuser or organization to waive their rights to bring civil actions. And third, the act waives immunity for any claims brought under it against government employees and government entities.

Victims can seek up to $387,000 against public entities and up to $1 million against private entities.

‘New right of relief’

Some lawmakers found that many civil claims brought by adults who were sexually abused as children are often dismissed due to the statute of limitations. The Colorado Attorney General estimated that most adult survivors don’t come forward on average until the age of 53, according to the Associated Press.

Key Point: The statute of limitations specifies the deadline for filing a civil lawsuit. Lawsuits cannot be brought after this deadline has past.

In drafting the law, lawmakers wanted the CSAAA to create “a new right for relief for any person sexually abused in Colorado while the person was participating in a youth-related activity or program as a child,” while not attempting to revise “any common law cause of action that is time-barred.”

The latter issue raised concerns during the lawmaking process.

Questionable constitutionality

Before CSAAA’s passage, a law professor told Senate Judiciary Committee members the bill was, in his opinion, unconstitutional, retrospective legislation.

“By creating a whole new cause of action,” the professor testified, the bill “imposed new obligations on past actions, which is literally what the Supreme Court has said is forbidden.”

CSAAA supporters pointed to the need for giving victims a remedy, despite questions about the law’s constitutionality.

Almost instantly challenged

Soon after CSAAA took effect, plaintiffs “A.S.” and her husband, “B.S.,” brought a claim against a former high school athletic coach and a school district. The plaintiffs alleged the coach sexually abused A.S. between 2001 and 2005, when A.S. was a minor.

Without CSAAA, the claim would have otherwise been time-barred by the statute of limitations.

A lower court ruled against the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Supreme Court expresses concerns about retrospective legislation

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the CSAAA violates article II, section 11 of the Colorado Constitution (the “retrospectivity clause”). This section prohibits the legislature from passing any law “retrospective in its operation.” CSAAA, the supreme court continued, “amounts to unconstitutional retrospective legislation as applied to the plaintiffs’ claims under the Act against the defendants [and] and accordingly, we affirm the district court’s order granting the defendants’ motions to dismiss.”

The Court observed:

We certainly understand the General Assembly’s desire to right the wrongs of past decades by permitting such victims to hold abusers and their enablers accountable. But the General Assembly may accomplish its ends only through constitutional means.

The retrospectivity clause of the Colorado Constitution prohibits retroactive legislation that creates a new obligation, imposes a new duty, or attaches a new disability with respect to past transactions or considerations. By creating a “new right for relief” that attaches liability for conduct predating the Act and for which any previously available cause of action would be time-barred, the CSAAA does just that. The CSAAA is therefore unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs’ claim in this case. Accordingly, the district court’s order granting the defendants’ motions to dismiss is affirmed.

The supreme court also noted that other portions of the law remain valid:

We do not hold that the CSAAA is unconstitutional in its entirety, or that all claims made under the CSAAA are precluded by the retrospectivity clause. Our holding does not affect claims brought under the CSAAA for which the previously applicable statute of limitations had not run as of January 1, 2022.

Extender laws have widespread support

In recent years, several states have passed laws eliminating or extending the statute of limitations for child abuse claims that were time-barred under prior law.

The purpose is clear and compelling—to provide a “second chance” to victims of childhood sexual abuse who, for whatever reason, were unable to bring a civil claim against their abuser prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

These laws have widespread public support.

But these same laws might put churches and denominations into an indefensible position.

In decades-old abuse claims, memories have faded, and personnel have changed. Often few if any staff or members are even aware of the alleged incident or the perpetrator. Moreover, church leaders don’t know if the church had liability insurance coverage at the time of the incident that may be implicated.

With this trend in state laws, this case demonstrates that, in some cases, the equities still may tip in favor of defendants.

This case also demonstrates the ways that states are more aggressively pursuing rights for victims. The Colorado Supreme Court emphasized the CSAAA was not struck down in its entirety. The law still includes language effectively attempting to eliminate time bars for alleged acts occurring after January 1, 2022. It also voids any waivers signed by victims that attempt to take away their rights to seek civil remedies.

Church leaders should understand state laws

Church leaders should be aware of any extension or amendment of the statute limitation for sexual abuse claims in their state. They also should note the increased efforts by legislatures to afford more rights to victims. This means the church may have to defend against cases that are many years and even decades in the past.

Church leaders should also recognize expanded rights to victims for acts perpetrated in the recent past and in the future.

Sound risk management, and permanent retention of all liability insurance policies, are imperative practices.

Aurora Public Schools v. A.S., (Colo. 2023).

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

Off-Campus Liability and Churches

Off-campus liability is an ongoing questions for churches and church leaders to address in light of these key cases.

Is off-campus liability a potential reality for churches? It’s an important and ongoing question that church leaders need to address. That’s because many events and activities occur beyond a church’s building and property.

Several courts have addressed this issue in cases involving both churches and non-religious charities.

We’ve summarized several key cases below. Non-religious charities are included because of the relevance of such cases to churches.

Leaders should:

  • Review the facts involved with each case.
  • Review the decisions made by the courts involved.
  • Review the key takeaways and questions to address.

Doing this will position leaders to assess potential legal and risks liabilities associated with off-campus activities.

Church picnic ATV accident

A Sunday School class teacher organized a church picnic that was conducted on the property of a church member. The pastor of the church attended the picnic but played no role in its planning or operation.

The Sunday school teacher notified church members about the picnic during a Sunday school class and a paper was passed around for members to sign up to bring food.

The teacher also encouraged church members to bring their friends and family to the picnic.

Church members provided the food, not the church. Other things like rifles and an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) were brought by church members.

A church member volunteered to bring his ATV to the picnic. The member was “pretty sure” that he asked the permission of the teacher and the property owner where the picnic was being held if he could bring it. However, he was sure that “nobody requested him to bring it.”

The picnic attendees included a couple and their 15-year-old son (“driver”), who brought a friend (and fellow church member) (“passenger”) along.

The driver was driving the ATV during the picnic, with the passenger riding on the back, when he took a turn too sharply and lost control of the ATV. The ATV rolled onto the passenger’s leg, breaking his ankle. The accident occurred on a public road one or two miles off the property where the picnic was hosted.

After the accident, an attorney representing the passenger’s parents asserted claims against the driver’s parents and the church. No claims were asserted against the owner of the ATV.

A dispute arose as to insurance coverage. The church’s insurance company insisted that it did not provide insurance coverage for the accident. The court noted that “it is undisputed that the church is the named insured under the policy” and so the issue under consideration was whether the parents were also insureds under the policy.

The church’s insurance company insisted that it did not provide coverage for the accident. The court noted the policy defined an “insured” as: any of your members, but only with respect to their liability for activities they perform on your behalf, or at your direction and within the scope of their duties.

The court noted that the “pertinent policy language is clear and unambiguous and … does not cover every activity undertaken by a church member that happens to be related to a church event.”

The court concluded that a church may be responsible for injuries occurring on a member’s property, but only if the activity causing the injury was done on “behalf of the church or at its direction, request, or benefit.” The court concluded that there was no evidence that the church was “involved in any way with the decision to allow the driver to operate the ATV.”

The court referred to a prior case, Philadelphia Insurance Company v. N. Texas Annual Conference, 2018 WL 2322071 (Texas App. 2018). In the Philadelphia Insurance case, a church member collided with a skier while snowboarding on a church-sponsored ski trip.

After the skier sued the church member, the church’s insurer filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it had no duty to provide coverage for the accident because the church member was not covered by the policy. The court agreed with the insurer, finding that the church member was not covered under the policy because his snowboarding activity was not done on behalf of the church or at its direction, request, or benefit, even though the ski trip was sponsored by the church “for the purpose of strengthening their faith and encouraging their participation, membership and advancing the [church’s] mission.”

The Florida court agreed:

The same reasoning applies here. Although the church picnic attended by Liam and his parents was advertised during a Sunday School class at the church and was intended to promote fellowship amongst church members [the driver and his parents] were merely attendees of the picnic and their decision to allow the driver to operate the ATV was not done on behalf of the church or at its direction, request, or benefit. Thus, the [parents] were not insureds under the church’s insurance policy.

The court concluded that a church may be responsible for injuries occurring on a member’s property, but only if the activity causing the injury was done on “behalf of the church or at its direction, request, or benefit.”

The court also concluded that there was no evidence that the church was “involved in any way with the decision to allow (the boy) to operate the ATV.”

ASI Insurance Company, 2022 WL 2760479 (N.D. Fla. 2022).

Considering the Florida court’s decision, church leaders will want to learn the circumstances involved in—and the outcomes of—the following cases involving off-campus events.

Halloween hayride presents scary scenario

A North Carolina court ruled that a church could be liable for serious injuries suffered by a woman. The woman was seriously injured when she fell after stepping in to prevent a child from falling from a church-sponsored Halloween hayride. She was both impaled and dragged by the trailer carrying the riders.

A trial court later dismissed her lawsuit, but an appeals court found the trial court had erred in several areas:


The woman claimed the church organized the hayride and determined what precautions should be taken for the riders’ protection. The church decided whether the lighting on the trailer was adequate and how many passengers were permitted on each ride.

The appellate court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing this basis of liability.

Negligent supervision

The woman alleged the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the children on the hayride as demonstrated by the fact that: (1) there was a lot of loud screaming and horsing around; (2) the light illuminating the trailer was insufficient to properly illuminate the entire bed, preventing proper visibility and supervision by the adults present; and (3) a child was close enough to the edge of the trailer bed to be within easy reach of one walking alongside of it.

The appellate court acknowledged that “where an adult host or supervisor is entrusted with and assumes the responsibility for the welfare of a child, they have a duty to the children to exercise a standard of care that a person of ordinary prudence, charged with similar duties, would exercise under similar circumstances.”

The amount of care that is required “increases with immaturity, inexperience, and relevant physical limitations.” 

The appellate court concluded the woman alleged facts indicating that the welfare of the children on the hayride had been entrusted to the supervisors appointed by the church for purposes of safely operating the hayride.

Therefore, the appellate court decided the trial court erred in dismissing the negligent supervision claim against the church.

Key takeaways:

  • Hayrides may result in death or serious injuries to participants.
  • A church may be liable for such injuries based on negligent supervision of the activity, inadequate lighting, and overloading.

Clontz v. St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 578 S.E.2d 654 (N.C. App. 2003).

Deadly after-school party

Two students of a church-operated secondary school (the “school”) formally invited several other students to an “end-of-the-year party” in their home.

Alcohol was consumed in the house and in cars. One student (the “victim”) and a classmate drank alcohol in the victim’s car for an hour, and then went into the party with the remainder of their alcoholic drinks.

Hours later, the victim and his friend died when the victim’s vehicle collided with a tree at about 100 mph. The friend died instantly. The victim, whose blood alcohol was .09 percent, was paralyzed.

The victim and his parents (the “plaintiffs”) sued the school, the religious diocese that they alleged controlled the school, the school’s principal, the parents of the two students who hosted the party, and the convenience store that sold the alcohol to the victim and his friend. The plaintiffs and the school principal settled for $1.1 million, but the case involving the other defendants proceeded to trial.

Following a legal concept known as comparative negligence, jury awarded the plaintiffs more than $55 million in damages. They apportioned 53 percent of the negligence to the plaintiffs, and 25 percent to the school. They apportioned another 20 percent to the parents at whose home the party took place, and 2 percent to the person who bought the alcohol at the store for the victim and his friend.

The trial court allowed a $1.1 million setoff in the award for the settlement with the school principal. The court also entered an amended final judgment against the school and diocese for $13 million.

The school and the diocese appealed.

The state appellate court described two rules used in deciding if a school (or church, or any other youth-serving organization) is legally responsible for injuries to students during off-premises activities:

School-sponsored events. A school may be responsible for injuries to students during an off-site “school-sponsored” event. The court noted that the “sponsor” of an event is one who pays for it or takes responsibility for it. In this case, “no resources of the school were used to conduct the party. High schools may be said to sponsor a prom away from the school premises, but the event is on official school calendars; faculty and staff ordinarily attend and chaperone; and the boundaries of liability are normally the boundaries of the school-sponsored venue.”

School-related events. The court noted that the broader category of school-related events “requires some connection to the school’s academic and extracurricular programs. A school athletic team’s participation in a scheduled competition at another location is obviously school-related.” The court referred to Florida Supreme Court ruling that a school club’s off-premises meeting was school-related, subjecting the school to liability for negligence. Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982). In that case, the activity that caused a student’s tragic injury was officially prohibited by the school (a hazing ceremony).

The appellate court concluded that the victim in this case was not injured during a school-related event. It cited the following factors in reaching this conclusion:

  • There was no extracurricular or student “organization” over which the school or principal could have exercised control. As a result, there was no duty to do so.
  • There was no “club” that had been recognized, endorsed, or supervised in any way by the school.
  • The off-premises activity was planned, hosted, and attended by a collection of students “having no name, group identity known to the school, or school-related purpose.”
  • The two student “hosts” did not ask for or obtain the school’s permission to conduct the event. And the academic school year was complete when the students left the school premises (before the event began).

Key takeaway:

This case gives guidance for churches and church-run schools that hold off-site bible studies, parties, club meetings, recreational activities, and athletic events. Here are some points to note:

  • Knowledge of an off-premises activity is not necessarily a basis for liability. There must be something more. The court concluded that liability may arise for either a “sponsored” event or a “related” event.
  • A school, church, or other youth-serving charity may be responsible for injuries to minors during an off-site “sponsored” event. The court noted that the characteristics of a “sponsor” of an event include the following: (1) A sponsor pays for it or takes responsibility for the event; (2) the event is on its official calendar; (3) one or more of the sponsor’s employees typically attend as chaperones.
  • The court also noted that a school can be liable for injuries to students during “school-related” events that involve “some connection to the school’s academic and extracurricular programs.” The court cited a school athletic team’s participation in a scheduled competition at another location, or a school club’s off-premises meeting. The court noted that the school’s duty of supervision extends to such activities if the group is officially sponsored by the school and the school reserves the authority to control its activities.

Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School, Inc. v. Maynoldi, 30 So.3d 533 (Fla. App. 2010).

Soccer club liable for injuries

An Arizona appeals court upheld a $7 million verdict against a youth soccer club because of permanent brain injuries suffered by a motorcyclist (“victim”) struck by a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old girl (“driver”). The driver was deemed to be driving carelessly while transporting other minors to a scheduled practice called by a club coach.

The victim’s guardian sued the soccer club, claiming that it was responsible for the driver’s negligence based on the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, which makes an employer responsible for the negligent acts of its employees while acting in the course of their employment. This principle has been extended to uncompensated volunteers acting negligently within the course of their duties on behalf of an organization.

A jury found the soccer club 1 percent at fault. It found the coach 16 percent at fault, and the driver 83 percent at fault.

However, the soccer club was responsible for paying the entire verdict based on the respondeat superior doctrine.

The soccer club appealed.

The appeals court noted that, in determining whether a charity is liable for off-campus injuries, two factors must be considered.

  • “Whether the actor has submitted herself to the directions and control of the one for whom the service is done and (2) whether the primary purpose underlying the act was to serve another.”

The court concluded there was sufficient evidence to find the driver subjected herself to the club’s control on the day of the incident. The court also concluded that the primary purpose of her actions was to serve the club.

In support of this conclusion, the court noted that, on the day of the accident, the coach directed the players to meet at a predetermined location and carpool to practice instead of relying on parents to provide transportation. Furthermore, there was evidence the coach asked the driver to drive herself and her teammates because she had one of the bigger vehicles.

The court concluded that reasonable persons could find the driver performed this task primarily for the club’s benefit. Under club rules, she “had a general obligation to transport herself to and from practice, but she had no obligation to transport several of her teammates, as the coach requested that she do.”

The court pointed to evidence that the club exercised control over the 16-year-old’s driving to and from the practice site. The driver testified that, as the team was preparing to leave the practice site, the coach gave her directions back to the mall and directed her to follow him in his vehicle.

The appellate court also rejected the soccer club’s argument that the doctrine of respondeat superior could not apply to the driver’s “informal and temporary” conduct. It cited two cases as examples of court rulings finding that a nonprofit organization may be vicariously liable for the negligence of a one-time or occasional volunteer who injures a third-party while using his or her personal vehicle to transport goods or persons for that organization, so long as the organization exercised sufficient control over the volunteer’s actions.

Bartell ex rel. Hoesel v. Mesa Soccer Club, 2010 WL 502993 (Ariz. App. 2010).

Jury left to decide issue of ‘vicarious liability’

A baseball coach instructed his team to meet at the high school before a game. At the school, he asked for volunteers to drive to the game and a 16-year-old player (“Reel”) volunteered to drive himself and several players in his father’s SUV. While returning from the game, Reel was involved in an accident that injured two players in his vehicle and killed another.

A lawsuit was filed and named the American Legion post that sponsored the baseball team as a defendant. The post moved for the case to be dismissed, but based on the case’s facts, the court found it was for the jury to determine whether the driver was an agent of the American Legion post and whether that American Legion post was vicariously liable for Reel’s negligence.

Daniels v. Reel, 515 S.E.2d 22 (N.C. App. 1999).

“Agent of the church” status opens door for negligence lawsuit

A church member (the defendant) volunteered to deliver cookies to sick and infirm church members as part of the church’s Christmas program.

While making deliveries, he turned his vehicle into the path of a motorcycle. This resulted in severe injuries to the motorcycle driver, including the amputation of his left leg.

An Indiana court later found sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude the defendant was an agent of the church and subject to its control, thereby making the church responsible for his negligent driving. The court noted that the defendant drove at the invitation of the church, and the defendant had participated as a driver on previous Christmases. The court also noted the church picked the delivery date and provided the cookies. The church also organized the list of shut-in members who were to receive the cookies. The church also chose the people to whom the defendant was to deliver the cookies.

Trinity Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Miller, 451 N.E.2d 1099 (Ind. App. 1983).

Deadly crash and administrator’s knowledge of off-campus drinking

A high school senior died in a car crash after an end-of-year, off-campus party. The student had a blood alcohol content of .13 percent.

A faculty advisor and principal had prior knowledge of the students’ intent to consume alcohol at the party.

The trial court and a Washington state appeals court both ruled in favor of the school. This, despite the principal’s and faculty adviser’s knowledge and inaction. The plaintiffs appealed.

The appeals court followed other cases determining that “the nexus between an assertion of the school district’s authority and potential tort liability springs from the exercise or assumption of control and supervision over [a student] organization and its activities by the appropriate agents of the school district.”

The appellate court pointed to a disclaimer in the school’s student and parent handbook: “THE SCHOOL WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY EVENT THAT IS NOT OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED BY THE ADMINISTRATION.”

In this case, the party “was not officially sanctioned.” In addition, “the school’s policy in the handbook does not change the fact that the incident occurred at a time when the school had no duty to supervise the students” since it occurred after the end of the school year.

Rhea v. Grandview School District, 694 P.2d 666 (1985).

School liable for off-campus hazing injury

A school was found liable for negligence when a student was injured in a hazing incident during an off-campus, school-related club meeting.

The school’s duty of supervision extended to the activity because the event was both authorized and sponsored by the school, which reserved to itself the authority to control the club’s activities, and the fact that that club had a faculty advisor.

Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982).

‘Individual’ versus authorized capacity

A college was not responsible for a tragic accident during an off-campus excursion to celebrate the end of the school year because the teacher who drove the group did so in his individual capacity, after classes were officially concluded, and without authorization by the school.

Fernandez v. Florida National College, Inc., 925 So.2d 1096 (Fla. App. 2006).


The article summarized above demonstrates that churches may be liable in some cases for injuries occurring off of church premises.

Liability is virtually certain when an injury occurs during an official, scheduled event. These cases assist church leaders in evaluating the potential risk of off-campus activities, especially those involving minors.

Great care must be taken when planning such events in order to reduce the risk of injury and church liability.

In exercising such care, leaders should ask the following questions when evaluating upcoming events and activities for off-site events:

  • Is our church directing, requesting, or benefiting from the activity or event? If so, courts will view the activity or event as an official one, expanding the church’s legal and risk liabilities.

If the event or activity is officially church-related, leaders should evaluate the risks of injury or death. They should then take steps to minimize problems, including (but not limited to):

  • assigning adequate staff and volunteers to supervise and assist;
  • ensuring adequate lighting and other safety measures are present;
  • limiting crowd size or the number of participants at a given time;
  • determining proper screen and selection of individuals who will drive; and,
  • seeking professional businesses skilled in the high-risk events or activities that can instruct, supervise and train before, during, and after the event or activity.

Church leaders oftentimes learn about an unfolding plan for an event or activity but are uncertain whether it can be characterized as an official church activity. In those instances, the following questions may be helpful for evaluating the plans:

  • Is the activity or event planned by a group or committee recognized, endorsed, or supervised by the church?
  • Have those involved with the planning sought permission from the church?
  • Have those involved with the planning requested resources (including money or materials) from the church? Has the church provided any?
  • Has the church’s staff or leaders controlled or directed any parts of the planning, including transportation arrangements, dates and times, locations, or other logistics?
  • Has the church officially promoted the activity or event through announcements on its website, its bulletin, its calendar, and/or during its worship services?
  • Will any church staff members attend the event or activity in their official capacity?

A “yes” to any of these questions likely increases the possibility the event or activity will be viewed as a church-related one.

If leaders become concerned about this increased possibility, qualified legal counsel—as well as counsel with the church’s insurer—may help determine the best steps to take to help reduce risks and ensure the event or activity fulfills its specific purpose.

Lastly, as the court in Rhea v. Grandview School District concluded, a church policy specifically stating it will not be responsible for any event that it does not officially sanction may be prudent.

While such a policy does not fully shield the church, particularly if answers to one or more of the above questions is “yes,” it still demonstrates the church’s official position.

As an act of ministry, the church also might consider providing specific steps that an individual or group should take to have the event or activity officially sanctioned by the church.

Further Reading: This church was found not liable for injuries sustained by a teenager at an off-campus church event. Click here to find out the specifics.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

Key Tax Dates July 2023

Key tax dates include filing Forms 8274 and 941, and meeting monthly or semiweekly filing requirements.

Monthly requirements

If your church or organization reported withheld taxes of $50,000 or less during the most recent lookback period (for 2023 the lookback period is July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022), then withheld payroll taxes are deposited monthly.

Tip: The 2023 Church & Clergy Tax Guide is available—order a print copy today (while supplies last) or download the .pdf version now.

Monthly deposits are due by the 15th day of the following month. Note, however, that if withheld taxes are less than $2,500 at the end of any calendar quarter (March 31, June 30, September 30, or December 31), the church or organization need not deposit the taxes.

Instead, it can pay the total withheld taxes directly to the IRS with its quarterly Form 941. Withheld taxes include federal income taxes withheld from employee wages, the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Semiweekly requirements

If your church or organization reported withheld taxes of more than $50,000 during the most recent lookback period (for 2023 the lookback period is July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022), then the withheld payroll taxes are deposited semiweekly. This means that for paydays falling on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, the payroll taxes must be deposited on or by the following Wednesday. For all other paydays, the payroll taxes must be deposited on the Friday following the payday.

Also note that large employers having withheld taxes of $100,000 or more at the end of any day must deposit the taxes by the next banking day. The deposit days are based on the timing of the employer’s payroll. Withheld taxes include federal income taxes withheld from employee wages, the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

July 28, 2023: File employer exemption—Form 8274

Churches hiring their first nonminister employee between April 1 and June 30 may exempt themselves from the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes by filing Form 8274 by this date (nonminister employees are thereafter treated as self-employed for Social Security purposes). The exemption is only available to churches that are opposed based on religious principles to paying the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

July 31, 2023: File Form 941

Churches having nonminister employees (or one or more ministers who report their federal income taxes as employees and who have elected voluntary withholding) must file an employer’s quarterly federal tax return (Form 941) for the second quarter of 2023 by this date. Enclose a check in the total amount of all withheld taxes (withheld income taxes, withheld Social Security and Medicare taxes paid by the employee, and the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes) if less than $2,500 on June 30, 2023.

Note: If a date listed for filing a return or making a tax payment falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday (either national or statewide in a state where the return is required to be filed), the return or tax payment is due on the following business day.

Note: You must use electronic funds transfer to make all federal employment tax deposits. This is generally done using the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, a free service provided by the US Department of Treasury. If you don’t wish to use EFTPS, you can arrange for your tax professional, financial institution, or payroll service to make deposits on your behalf. Failure to make a timely deposit may subject you to a 10-percent penalty.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

Part 1 of 4: Prepping for a Church Meeting

Preparation is key in holding an effective church meeting.

Editor’s Note: Prepping for a church meeting is as important as the meeting itself. Continuing her look at effective business meetings through the hypothetical lens of Liz Jones, an experienced business administrator at First Church, Sarah E. Merkle walks us through the three-step process of planning, defining, and ordering a meeting agenda.

This four-part series is offered in support of Merkle’s Mastering Meeting Basics.”

An effective church meeting can go a long way toward healthy and effective decision-making. Planning the meeting, therefore, is key.

Planning a church meeting: The problem

Liz Jones needs an effective business meeting plan.

Last year, First Church’s annual business meeting didn’t go so well. This year, Pastor Steve Hayes has asked Jones to fix that.

Jones, an experienced business administrator, knows preparation will be key. The congregationally led church is 16 years old and recently surpassed 500 members.

As the church grows, the need for meetings to go well only grows, too.

A few things went wrong at last year’s annual meeting:

  • It ran too long.
  • Discussion over pricey upgrades to the church’s audio/visual equipment went in circles.
  • A key decision related to making a minor tweak to one of the church’s bylaws got delayed because proper notice wasn’t given ahead of time to members.

The next annual business meeting—planned for Sunday, January 8, 2023, at 12:30 p.m.— is still several months away, but Jones knows she needs to work fast to plan and organize it well.

A general search online yielded some ideas. Then she came across a Church Law & Tax article series by Sarah E. Merkle, an attorney with impressive credentials and experience helping churches, nonprofits, businesses, and organizations run meetings.

The article covering meeting preparation especially caught her eye. On a whim, she sent Merkle an email explaining her circumstances. A short while later, Merkle emailed back.

Creating an effective church meeting plan

Merkle couldn’t provide specific advice to Jones because legal ethics don’t allow it when an attorney-client relationship doesn’t exist.

But Merkle generally described steps Jones can take to put a better plan together.

Step 1: Get your to-do list in order

Put the church’s articles of incorporation, bylaws, and policy manuals all within arm’s reach, and read through them to note any dates by which things must happen. Whether nominating new board members or approving an annual budget or adopting a pastor’s housing allowance, these dates create deadlines—and to-do lists that should get completed by the appropriate meeting before the corresponding deadline.

For the annual business meeting, recurring dates include submitting board nominations whenever one or more members finish their terms, and getting congregational approval for the next year’s fiscal budget. This year, only the latter needs to happen.

Step 2: Define the agenda.

Merkle explained that initial formalities need to be addressed, such as approving the minutes of the last business meeting, plus adopting the agenda for this one.

From there, First Church needs its next fiscal budget approved. It also typically uses the annual business meeting to share updates from the church’s ministries, facilities, and financial health committees. This year, it also faces several other important decisions—it’s about to call a new associate pastor. It is also contemplating repaving its parking lot.

In the past, First Church has typically saved the biggest—and often most controversial—decisions for the end of its annual business meetings.

That’s what happened last year when the church wrestled with the audio/visual proposal. It was costly, members wanted to debate it, and, given that the meeting was already running long, frustrations mounted as a vote was pushed through.

Merkle cautioned Jones about prioritizing the agenda a certain way only because it’s “how the church has always done it.”

With the list of agenda items defined, Merkle said she asks these questions to further understand the potential flow for the agenda:

  • Who should speak or present on behalf of any of the agenda items? The chair of the associate pastor search committee, for instance, should plan to talk about the candidate and explain the process used for the search, including the qualifications sought and the other people interviewed.

All presenters should be identified and contacted early to get them started with their respective presentations.

  • What resources do these individuals need to succeed with their remarks? This might include PowerPoint and other audio/visual support—and it may require staff time to assist the presenter, especially if he or she is a volunteer.
  • What information about an issue can be given to members ahead of time to help them learn and understand what the issue is about? For the associate pastor role, that might include a biography of the candidate. For the parking lot project, it might include an explanation about why it’s needed, the potential costs, and the ministry impact it can deliver.
  • What notice is required under the church’s governance to ensure an issue can be voted on? Last year’s bylaw change didn’t provide proper notice—and this year, the church’s governance requires notice before members can vote to call any pastor.

Step 3: Ordering the agenda

The last major step is to order the agenda.

“There’s no right or wrong answer here,” Merkle wrote. “It’s more important to ask certain questions to decide how to do it. What are you ultimately wanting to accomplish at this meeting? Prioritize the agenda based on what needs to be decided for the healthy functioning of the church over the next 30 to 45 days.”

One evaluation is to anticipate controversies.

“Is everyone coming to the meeting because they are already angry about the issue? If so, then it needs to be earlier in the agenda,” Merkle wrote. “Is everyone coming calm, but an issue on the agenda may anger them? If so, then don’t schedule anything afterward that is heavy or serious—keep it straightforward.”

Another evaluation is the pros and cons of each item happening at specific times on the agenda.

With the associate pastor role, there are positives to placing it early on the agenda. Most people likely will attend because of this specific decision, and they’ll have more energy early in the meeting. One negative, though, is that updates about ministry and financial health may shape how people decide—and those reports would likely come later.

Relatedly, there are pros and cons to placing the item later in the agenda, too. The pro is that all information should be in hand. The con is that people are tired.

For Jones, the order is starting to take shape. Leading the agenda with the ministries, financial health, and facilities reports should start things on a positive note. The facilities report will then include the parking lot project.

From there, the agenda will shift into the associate pastor discussion and decision, since the meeting is still relatively young and the new role’s impact on the church’s mission and operations will be better understood.

Plus, adding the position directly influences the church’s healthy functioning within the next 45 days.

Lastly, the agenda will address approval of the next annual budget.

Jones now can begin working on contacting the individuals she needs to speak on the various topics, and the timetables needed to notify the congregation about the associate pastor vote.

“I’m really glad you reached out,” Merkle wrote. “The thought put into an annual business meeting can turn it into something invigorating. The time you’re using now to prepare can make a massive difference in how people feel—helping them see the big picture and celebrate the church’s direction.”

Sarah E. Merkle is a professional parliamentarian and presiding officer. One of five lawyers worldwide to have earned the credentials Certified Professional Parliamentarian-Teacher (CPP-T) and Professional Registered Parliamentarian (PRP), she helps boards, associations, corporations, and public bodies navigate rules applicable to governance and business meetings.

Q&A: Correcting Improper FICA Withholdings

What to expect when correcting improper FICA withholdings for a pastor.

Q: Our church has been withholding FICA for its pastors, in some instances for years—or even decades. We recently learned this is a mistake. How do we fix this?

Wages paid to ministers are not included in the definition of wages for the purposes of withholding FICA/Medicare tax. This includes the related employer matching of these taxes by the church.   

Instead, ministers must pay into the Social Security/Medicare systems through self-employment tax calculated on Schedule SE with their personal tax returns (unless they obtain an exemption). 

Tip: Elaine’s expertise on FICA, payroll, FLSA, and a host of other key topics are on full display in Church Compensation: From Strategic Plan to Compliance. Pick up your copy today.

FICA withholding rules are confusing

Improper FICA withholdings is not uncommon. Churches often incorrectly withhold and match the FICA/Medicare taxes on ministers. If the IRS determines this treatment has occurred, it takes the position that the church has determined the employee is not a minister for payroll tax purposes. This may affect the taxation of other benefits. That’s because it’s impossible to claim to be a minister for one portion of the rules but not for another.

For an example of how the incorrect withholding of a minister’s payroll taxes can prove so consequential, look no further than the housing allowance that qualifying ministers are eligible to receive.

The housing allowance is one of the most valuable tax benefits available to ministers. If a church treats a minister incorrectly and withholds and matches the minister’s FICA/Medicare taxes, then the IRS views him or her as an employee, not a minister. The IRS then would tax the housing allowance paid by the church for the minister, representing a sizable financial loss for the minister. 

Correcting Improper FICA Withholdings

Churches that have improperly withheld/matched a minister’s FICA/Medicare taxes should amend the payroll reports for the three tax years open under the statute of limitations.

This requires amending quarterly Forms 941 and annual Forms W-2. Taxes paid will be refunded to the church. And, because it mistakenly overpaid its taxes, the church will not face any penalties.

The minister will need to report the compensation as self-employment income for the past three years. This is done by amending the related Forms 1040.

The minister also needs to pay the related self-employment tax owed. Interest will be calculated on the tax owed when he or she amends the Forms 1040. 

These amendments can be complicated, so a church may require professional assistance in filing the related amended reports and returns.

Learn more:

Elaine L. Sommerville is licensed as a certified public accountant by the State of Texas. She has worked in public accounting since 1985.

Part 4 of 4: Minding Meeting Minutes

Holding an effective church meeting includes knowing who should be keeping minutes and how they should be kept.

Editor’s Note: Minding meeting minutes is both an oft-misunderstood and under-appreciated part of a church business meeting. Continuing her look at effective business meetings through the hypothetical lens of Liz Jones, an experienced business administrator at First Church, Sarah E. Merkle shows the important roles that meeting minutes play.

This four-part series is offered in support of Merkle’s Mastering Meeting Basics.”

Long before First Church’s annual business meeting arrived, Liz Jones mapped out a plan for getting the meeting’s minutes taken, too.

Before proceeding, though, she first needed to clear up some misconceptions about who should take minutes. Some assumed it would be the church secretary. Others assumed it should be Jones as the church business administrator.

Neither assumption was correct.

Instead, the responsibility of taking minutes falls to the church board’s secretary.

Jones reached out to Tom Erickson, the board secretary, and scheduled a meeting ahead of time to go over his duties.

“I’m nervous about this task, to be honest,” Erickson confided to Jones when they met. “I have a hard time capturing everything said in a conversation—there’s so much to keep track of.”

“Don’t worry,” Jones responded. “I’ll help you understand exactly what we need. And remember, I’m attending the meeting, too. There should always be someone backing you up at a meeting, and I can do that for this meeting.”

Recording what is done, not said

Jones then walked Erickson through the key tips for taking effective minutes.

“You’re not recording the meeting. You’re not transcribing the meeting,” she explained. “You’re recording what was done, not what was said.”

Erickson nodded but looked slightly confused.

“But to record what was done, don’t we need to know who said what—who supported what, who opposed what, that kind of thing?” he asked.

“No—that’s a common mistake many church leaders make,” Jones answered. “So much of what happens just needs to be a brief, general description. For instance, when Cindy Martinez gets up to give the facilities report, it doesn’t have to be detailed. It should just say, ‘The facilities chair gave a report on behalf of the facilities committee, including details on proposed projects for the parking lot, children’s ministry wing, and HVAC system.’ That’s it.”

Jones paused as Erickson jotted down some notes.

“Is there ever a time when specific details need to be included, though?” Erickson asked.

“Yes,” Jones responded. “Mainly when votes are taken. You need to record the outcomes. If specific counts are made, you need to capture the votes for and the votes against.”

Erickson scribbled down a couple more notes.

“So, this is really about just making sure ultimate decisions and directions are recorded for future reference—not a play-by-play,” he said.

“Exactly,” Jones responded. “And when the next business meeting comes, they’re already prepared and ready to be presented for approval as a way to formally document those decisions and directions.”

A closer look at the minutes

Erickson heeded Jones’s advice. Because he wasn’t focused on recording every word said, he found the task much more manageable—and capturing highlights and high-level details came more easily than he expected.

This especially proved true during the extensive discussion about the proposed facilities projects. Erickson knew he would have gotten flustered trying to note each perspective shared about support or opposition—and objectively representing the remarks would be next to impossible anyway.

After First Church’s annual business meeting, he cleaned up the notes he typed during the meeting. To his credit, he needed Jones’s backup notes for only one thing—the official vote count (243 to 13) in favor of the candidate for the new associate pastor role.

Erickson’s draft minutes looked like this:

First Church

Annual Business Meeting

January 8, 2023

12:30 p.m.

Board Chair Terry Christensen called the annual business meeting of First Church to order at 12:35 p.m.. A quorum was present.


By unanimous consent, the agenda was adopted as presented.

2022 Annual Business Meeting Minutes

By unanimous consent, the minutes of the January 9, 2022 annual business meeting were approved as distributed.

Ministry Update

Outreach Coordinator Joy Allman provided an update on the progress of various ministries of the church, noting that the children’s ministry was experiencing significant growth and that the church leadership was exploring a new missions opportunity in Ecuador.

Finance Committee

Alex Armstrong, chair of the Finance Committee, provided an overview of the financial reports distributed to the membership, noting that member giving has been steady and that the building and property loan from 2016 remains the church’s only outstanding debt.

Facilities Committee

Cindy Martinez, chair of the Facilities Committee, provided an update on the state of the Church’s facilities. On behalf of the Committee, Ms. Martinez moved that the Facilities Committee obtain bids to begin the following capital projects during the next fiscal year: repave the parking lot, and replace the HVAC system; and, that the Facilities Committee be authorized to proceed with these projects, provided they do not exceed a combined total cost of $200,000. The motion was adopted as amended.

Associate Pastor Search Committee

Russ Moore, chair of the Associate Pastor Search Committee, provided an overview of the associate pastor search, including the Committee’s process for identifying and vetting candidates. On behalf of the Committee, Mr. Moore moved that First Church call Karl Miller to be associate pastor of First Church. The motion was adopted, with 243 in favor and 13 opposed.

2023–2024 Budget

On behalf of the Finance Committee, Alex Armstrong moved that the 2023–2024 budget be adopted as distributed. The motion was adopted.


By unanimous consent, the meeting adjourned at 2:00 p.m.

Sarah E. Merkle is a professional parliamentarian and presiding officer. One of five lawyers worldwide to have earned the credentials Certified Professional Parliamentarian-Teacher (CPP-T) and Professional Registered Parliamentarian (PRP), she helps boards, associations, corporations, and public bodies navigate rules applicable to governance and business meetings.

Part 3 of 4: Making Every Vote Count

Holding an effective church meeting includes understanding the four basic types of votes, and knowing which one is best.

Editor’s Note: Making every vote count in a church business meeting takes many forms. Continuing her look at effective business meetings through the hypothetical lens of Liz Jones, an experienced business administrator at First Church, Sarah E. Merkle illustrates the various types of votes that can be taken at a business meeting, and the methods for calculating their outcomes.

This four-part series is offered in support of Merkle’s Mastering Meeting Basics.”

Before First Church’s annual business meeting, Liz Jones met with Terry Christensen, the church board’s chairwoman, to go over the four types of votes that can be conducted. The two looked closely at each option, weighing their benefits and drawbacks and assessing when they might prove most useful.

The homework pays off as the annual business meeting unfolds.

Vote Type 1: General or unanimous consent vote

“This type of vote is great for noncontroversial matters,” Jones told Christensen during their prep. “It also speeds up the meeting.”

The two agreed she’d use them for the first items on the agenda: adopting the agenda for this meeting and approving the last business meeting’s minutes. She followed that plan in the meeting’s first moments.

“First, we will approve the agenda for this meeting. Are there any objections to today’s agenda as presented?” she asks. Then, as Jones coached her, she pauses and counts to three. “Hearing no objection, the agenda is approved.”

Christensen clears her throat, then leans into the podium microphone again. “Next is approving the minutes from the last business meeting. Are there any corrections to the minutes as distributed?”

Three more seconds pass with silence. “Hearing no objection, the minutes are approved,” she says.

Jones told Christensen the likelihood of objections to either of these agenda items was very small. Had one arisen, though, she would have simply resorted to a voice vote.

Vote Type 2: Voice vote

Like Jones predicted, members discussed the proposed motion from the facilities committee with zeal.

A proposed amendment to that motion—in which bids would be sought for projects involving the church’s parking lot and HVAC system, but not for repainting the children’s ministry wing—went through lengthy discussion.

After nearly 20 minutes, Christensen senses it’s time to move things along. To do so requires a motion to close debate, followed by a second to that motion, then followed by approval by a two-thirds majority. With 300 members present, Christensen opts to use a voice vote.

“All of those in favor of closing the debate on the amended motion as presented, say ‘Aye.’”

The ‘aye’s’ boom across the room.

“All opposed, say ‘No.’”

Only a smattering of ‘no’s’ arises across the sanctuary. Christensen feels confident that two-thirds voted in favor.

Now it’s time to see if enough support exists to approve the motion as amended with the children’s ministry project removed.

This time, only a majority is needed. Christensen again opts for a voice vote.

“All of those in favor of the motion as amended, say ‘Aye.’” Christensen says.

Another hearty round of ‘aye’s’ fills the sanctuary.

“All opposed, say ‘No.’”

A strong number of ‘no’s’ spread across the sanctuary, too.

It’s too close to call.

Vote Type 3: Raised hand or standing vote

During the prep, Jones told Christensen about the usefulness of a “raised hand or standing vote” option. “You use this when a voice vote is too close to call. You can also use it if you need the exact vote count noted in the meeting’s minutes,” Jones explained. “It’s a really effective way to keep things moving when the vote itself doesn’t need to be kept in secret.”

With the voice vote on the parking lot and HVAC projects too close, and no apparent need for secrecy involved with either decision, Christensen chooses a standing vote.

“The chair was uncertain, so we’ll conduct a standing vote,” she says into the microphone. “All of those in favor, please stand.”

A large contingent of individuals across the sanctuary rise.

“Please sit down,” she says. “Now, all of those opposed, please stand.”

Another sizable group rises. It’s still too close to call, even visually.

Christensen asks those standing to sit. She then asks those in favor to stand again.

Two tellers attending the meeting to count votes then proceed to count off those who are standing. Upon finishing, Christensen asks supporters to sit, then asks those opposed to stand. The two tellers then have those who are opposed count off.

The result: Those in favor measured 102, while those opposed measured 101—the closest margin possible.

“The motion as amended passes,” Christensen says.

Vote Type 4: Ballot vote

Going into the annual business meeting, Jones knew the calling of an associate pastor would need a ballot vote. Not only is it a significant decision, and one that members may not wish to openly vote about, but the church’s bylaws require at least two-thirds of those present and voting to approve a decision like this.

A ballot vote ensures an accurate and official count is taken and documented with the meeting’s minutes.

Anticipating this, Jones worked ahead of time with Russ Moore, chair of the Associate Pastor Search Committee, to review the church’s membership roll.

She made certain enough notice was provided to all members about the expected vote during the meeting. And she made certain enough ballots were created and available on the day of the meeting.

Jones also ensured the ballots were printed with the actual question and appropriate responses for members to select. It didn’t have to be fancy—it just simply read, “I am in favor of calling Karl Miller to be associate pastor of First Church,” followed by boxes with “YES” and “NO” next to them. No signature was required since the bylaws didn’t require one and the desire for secrecy weighed heavily.

Counting votes

The ballots for Miller’s candidacy were collected. Two tellers quickly went through them.

Among the 300 members present at the meeting, 256 cast votes.

Jones recalled Sarah E. Merkle’s article on voting and the formula needed for determining at least a two-thirds majority. Here, since there were 256 members present who voted, the tellers would take 256, multiply it by 2, then divide it by 3 to determine the number of votes needed for a two-thirds approval. Since the mathematical result to this formula—170.6—wasn’t a whole number, the tellers rounded up to the nearest whole number, which is 171.

Tip: The formula for determining a two-thirds majority is (N x 2)/3 where N is the number of people present who voted. When the result is not a whole number, the number is rounded up to the nearest whole number.

For Miller, the members overwhelmingly approve his call by a margin of 243 to 13.

Christensen breathes a sigh of relief, partly because of the need to get Miller started soon, and partly because the controversy with the facilities projects earlier in the meeting was much closer—and almost didn’t pass.

Part of the reason why was because the calculation for a majority vote works differently from the formula for calculating a two-thirds vote. With a majority, the number of members voting is multiplied times 0.5. If a whole number results, then a 1 gets added. If a fractional number results, then it gets rounded up to the nearest whole number.

Tip: The formula for determining a majority vote is N x 0.5, where N is the number of people voting. If a whole number results, add 1. If a fractional number results, round up to the nearest whole number.

In the facilities motion as amended, 203 people voted. Multiplied by 0.5, the result was 101.5, and rounded up to the next whole number, the figure was 102. That meant the motion barely passed.

But it passed nonetheless, and as the meeting headed toward the home stretch, Christensen and Jones believed no major obstacles remained in the way. The church’s budget information was presented well in advance, and support already existed for the variance built in for the facilities projects.

Christensen and Jones were right: A voice vote on the approval of the budget overwhelmingly passed.

The meeting finished. Pastor Hayes considered it a major success.

Sarah E. Merkle is a professional parliamentarian and presiding officer. One of five lawyers worldwide to have earned the credentials Certified Professional Parliamentarian-Teacher (CPP-T) and Professional Registered Parliamentarian (PRP), she helps boards, associations, corporations, and public bodies navigate rules applicable to governance and business meetings.
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