Attorney Sally Wagenmaker is a partner in a Chicago-based law firm serving churches and nonprofits. Wagenmaker is the current president of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), and she led efforts to add a “Pastors’ Forum” to the CLS national conference taking place this October 31 to November 3 in Chicago.
Editor Matthew Branaugh recently interviewed Wagenmaker about legal issues confronting churches and pastors, the addition of the Pastors’ Forum, and the ways churches can secure legal representation when needs arise and resources are limited. In Part 1 of this two-part interview she shares insights on legal risks and liabilities associated with ministry.
As an attorney experienced with working with churches and nonprofits, what are the recurring legal problems you consistently see arise for churches and other nonprofits?
Churches and other nonprofits must comply with myriad legal requirements, plus they are accountable to donors and their members as stewards of charitable resources. Many legal areas are implicated: governance, employment, real estate, abuse issues and related risk management, intellectual property, international activities, and tax issues. Because ministry organizations are varied and often complicated, so too are legal compliance issues.
Given limited resources and focus on ministry activities, attention is often not given to: annual government filing obligations, maintaining up-to-date bylaws that accurately fit the organization’s governance, proper real estate ownership and tax exemption matters, program safety, correctly handling employment matters, and permitted uses of creative works protected as intellectual property. Filing requirement issues may be relatively minor, but the other legal issues can result later in serious financial and operational implications.