As hard as it is for me to believe, Church Law & Tax Report launched 25 years ago. I would like to share a few thoughts about the origin, early years, and continuing mission of this publication.
I was asked to teach a course on church law at a local seminary in Springfield, Missouri, back in 1979. I was a young attorney, with little experience in church legal matters, but I agreed to the assignment based entirely on my assumption that someone had written a "church law" text that I could use. I soon discovered that my assumption was incorrect. There were no such books in print!
Over the next few years, I made the commitment to write my own book. I spent countless hours in the legal library of a state appellate court pouring over every court ruling involving churches or clergy back to the 19th century. It became a familiar sight, me sitting at a table surrounded by piles of casebooks and pads of paper, working at a frenetic pace. I slowly began making progress. An increasingly detailed outline emerged, with countless references under each point to the cases I had read. My knowledge of church law began to expand. My only regret, looking back at this period of my life, was that I was away from my wife and two preschool children for so many hours each week. Fortunately, in time, my workplace shifted from the law library to my home, since my work increasingly consisted of writing rather than research. Yes, I continued to make trips to the library, but they became less frequent.
After three years, the book started coming together in final form. I typed the final manuscript myself, using an IBM Selectric typewriter with the little "typeball" that rotated and pivoted before each strike. This was in the days before computers. If I needed to add a paragraph to a page, the entire page had to be retyped. It was a very slow and laborious process!
It was at this time that a remarkable event occurred. I was up late one night typing the final pages in my "office" (a card table with a small Tensor light in my 5-year-old daughter's bedroom). It was past midnight. I put a sheet of paper in the typewriter to complete the last sentences of the book. And then it happened. After typing the final sentence, I scrolled down to the bottom of the page and inserted the page number. It was "723." My book was 723 pages long! I was stunned. That was the street address of our home. I took this as a divine confirmation that our move to Missouri, and the writing of the book, were all part of a divine plan. In the semi-darkness and quiet of my "office," with only the slight hum of the typewriter audible, I closed my eyes, fell to my knees, and uttered a prayer of thanksgiving. This was the first of many incidents that would affirm for me the sanctity of my work.
I decided to title my book Pastor, Church & Law, since this was the title of the course I continued to teach at the local seminary. I thought the book would sell a few hundred copies each year to seminarians, but to my surprise, it quickly passed the 25,000 threshold and catapulted me into the completely unexpected role of an "expert" on church law. I began receiving frequent requests from national media for my comments on stories involving church legal issues. Despite all my research and preparation, I still felt undeserving of this attention.
Perhaps the most significant legacy of the first edition of Pastor, Church & Law was that it caught the attention of Jim Cobble, an expert in church administration living in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jim saw a need for a newsletter addressing legal and tax issues for churches and ministers, and in early 1987, he asked if I would write it. I agreed. We each invested several thousand dollars to pay for a direct mail ad that we sent out to several thousand churches. The response exceeded our target, and so I proceeded to write the first edition of a bimonthly newsletter that we called the Church Law & Tax Report. Our first edition (March- April 1987) was eight pages long, and began with a welcome to our charter subscribers that read, in part:
This inaugural issue of Church Law & Tax Report represents a new step forward in providing vital legal and tax information to clergy and churches. Our commitment is to provide accurate and authoritative information needed in these critical areas …. We believe that you will discover Church Law & Tax Report to be an indispensable resource related to the legal and tax issues that face ministers and churches today.
Over time, the newsletter changed in a number of ways. First, it became much larger, increasing from eight to 32 pages per edition. This increase was due largely to the increasing exposure of churches to litigation and regulation. Second, the number of subscribers increased significantly. I attribute this to the perception by most subscribers that the newsletter contains relevant and timely information written in a comprehensible and accessible manner. Over the years, many subscribers have commented to me that "while not every article in the newsletter is directly relevant to our church, there is always something that is." I am especially gratified by the fact that many of our charter subscribers are still with us. Third, Jim Cobble and I sold our publications to Christianity Today in 2006, ending our 20-year partnership (I still remain senior editor of the newsletters and resources today) that produced countless articles, books, videos, and audio recordings. And fourth, I no longer use the IBM Selectric!
I have received countless expressions of commendation and appreciation from subscribers during these past 25 years. My all-time favorite was a letter that I received in 1992 from Rabbi Joseph Glaser, who at that time was executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in New York. He was inviting me to speak at a conference he was organizing. His letter, which is framed on a wall in my office, ends with these words:
I thoroughly appreciate the magnificent work that you do on behalf of the clergy …. Again, thanks for your wonderful efforts on our behalf. Your work is read here with the same devotion with which we read Scripture, and maybe even with a little more alacrity.
Writing the newsletter after 25 years continues to be a source of great joy and satisfaction for me. While some things have changed, the basic purpose remains the same as stated 25 years ago in our inaugural edition—providing "accurate and authoritative information … related to the legal and tax issues that face ministers and churches today."