One of the primary services of the Heritage 21 Foundation (“H21”) is to assist Churches of Christ to make sure they are legally protected, especially in times of difficulty and crisis. When congregations are struggling, too often we have observed one of the following unfortunate outcomes:
- Facilities being taken over by groups who do not share our understanding of scripture;
- Facilities being sold and the proceeds stolen or distributed by remaining individuals in violation of both tax law and state law; or
- Facilities just deteriorating until they are near worthless.
These outcomes are not inevitable for congregations diligent about their stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to their care. I want to share with you two examples of churches who have sought us out to help them address their legal issues so they could better stewards their congregations:
A Healthy Congregation Example:The Pearl Harbor Church of Christ (“PHCC”) in Hawaii is an active congregation that today is not at risk of closing, but whose leadership reached out to H21 to help them form a long-term plan to minimize three risk factors that could jeopardize their future: (1) the total attendance has experienced some decline over the past several years, (2) the highly transient nature of its membership due to its location adjacent to a joint U.S. Navy/Air Force base; and (3) the significant value of their property as an attractive target for takeover.
Over several months H21 shared multiple options for ways that the PHCC could protect and preserve their property for long-term kingdom work. After considerable discussion by the congregation and its leadership, it was decided that its first steps would be to revise and strengthen its corporate documents—their Articles of Incorporation and the Bylaws—to include provisions which would make it more difficult for a takeover or other diversion of the church facilities. It should be noted that good Articles and Bylaws are not an absolute protection, but they are a good first level defense and deterrent to those who would divert the resources to other purposes.
A Struggling Congregation Example:Another example of congregations needing legal help would be the Mountain Pine Church of Christ (MPCC) in Arkansas. As the congregation dwindled to less than twenty-five people (several driving in from other communities), the remaining members recognized their need to steward their property as they contemplated closing. They reached out to H21, and we determined two serious legal problems that needed to be resolved before they could close and repurpose their property in ways more valuable for God’s kingdom work.
First, H21 discovered that the church had never been incorporated, thus leaving all of the members exposed to potential legal liability for any harm that might occur on the property and making it difficult to ever sell or transfer their property. Secondly, H21 learned that title to the property was very uncertain, again making selling or transferring very difficult. Over several months H21 assisted them in incorporating the church, clearing the title questions, evaluating the potential for sale of the property, and thinking through the options for disposition of the property and dissolving the corporation following their close.
Why does H21 want to help?H21 acknowledges that the church is not a temporal body, and that church property is not the church. However, we believe that good stewardship demands that we use the laws of the state to protect church assets and to make sure they are used in legal and God-honoring ways. Each situation is unique, but with members who are willing to take action, there are several legal steps that can be helpful.
Heritage 21 Foundation was established to be a trusted advisor to congregations needing church counseling, legal-related strategies, real estate assistance and trustee services. And we are especially driven to assist struggling congregations, who are hurting and don’t know where to turn. If H21 can be helpful to your congregation, please visit our website at www.heritage21.org, review some of our resources there, and sign up for help from H21. It is our joy to help you in protecting and ensuring that your facilities continue to be used to honor our God and serve His people.