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December 6, 2019
Managing Your Church Blog, August, 2019
Why "Legal" Matters More Than Ever
Churches can no longer fly under the radar, explains attorney Erika Cole.
Why "Legal" Matters More Than Ever

Attorney Erika Cole (pictured above) developed the Church Compliance Conference in 2007 to serve churches and pastors who face legal and tax concerns. Editor Matthew Branaugh recently talked to Cole, who serves as an editorial advisor for Church Law & Tax, about legal struggles pastors are currently facing and how this year’s conference is designed to address those issues.

What separates your event from the many other conferences hosted year-round across the country?

It is an event designed to equip and inspire pastors, executive pastors, church planting organizations, and other church leaders with essential information necessary to operate in compliance with the law.

To my knowledge, I am the only attorney in a major law firm whose practice is exclusively focused on representing churches. My experience has been that churches want to do the right thing, but with ever-changing laws, it’s not always easy for church leaders to know what to do.

In this world of increased government scrutiny, and with the challenges churches face, we want to help leaders be equipped to protect themselves and the work that God has given them.

This year’s conference theme is “Church Leadership at a Tipping Point: New Challenges, New Priorities.” What issues specifically lead you to believe we are at a tipping point in church ministry? How does education through an event like this play a role in responding to those issues?

We have all heard the challenges: church attendance is declining quickly and church budgets are often under significant stress as a result. What were once conversations about managing budgets are frequently now becoming conversations about proactively seeking new revenue sources and the legal considerations related to this.

Partnering with other thought leaders, including financial, real estate, and other professionals, this conference is a trusted resource for church leaders to move from the contemplation of challenging questions to the confidence of workable solutions. Our conference is premised on the notion that while there are major challenges, churches can continue to thrive.

This year’s conference includes sessions on buildings and property, which resonates because Church Law & Tax’s review of the top reasons churches went to court last year include zoning (No. 2) and property disputes (No. 4). Why do you think real estate issues have become so problematic for churches?

I was raised in the era of “if you build it, they will come,” so there was great pride in the church building. Nowadays, as you point out, two of the top five reasons churches go to court include matters involving the church building.

Many churches also find themselves deferring repairs and upkeep to the church building as they deal with hard budgeting decisions. At this year’s conference, we ask and answer the questions church leaders must examine with respect to the church building as their largest expense outside of personnel. Many churches and church-planting groups are opting for mobile church solutions, but that also poses important legal and practical considerations. We’ll discuss these and other important topics.

The conference also features a pastors-only roundtable discussion. What are some ways this conversation helps drive learning and encouragement for attendees—all while ensuring they still receive good, sound legal information?

This segment has always been a favorite part of the conference. Sometimes leaders need to know that their challenges are not unique to them and that there are, in fact, solutions available. It’s also great to see leaders connecting with each other. Whether contemplating a church merger, considering alternate revenue streams, or balancing bi-vocational pastoring, with the information received at this event, pastors are more equipped and inspired to handle today’s challenges and establish new priorities.

What types of church leaders will most benefit from this event—and should only those who live and work nearby consider attending?

Pastors, executive pastors, church-planting groups, finance team members, trustees, and other leaders will find the conference beneficial. And the event is right outside of the nation’s capital, so access is easy for those who want to drive or fly.

The Church Compliance Conference takes place from 8 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. on Thursday, September 26, 2019, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Online registration is available.

Matthew Branaugh is Editor of Content and Business Development for Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax.