How to Start a Church
Develop a plan for your Universal Life Church ministry
There are many social, financial, and business aspects of churches Universal Life Church ministers should consider when they plan on starting their own ministry. Answering the following preliminary questions to help you determine what kind of ministry you are interested in creating:
- What are your core motivating factors for starting a church?
- Do you envision your ministry to be a full-time or part-time endeavor?
- Do you intend to engage in fundraising activities and support a variety of community programs?
- Do you also intend to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals and so on?
Answer these questions before you start a church and you will streamline your research on the legal and financial responsibilities involved in running one. Make sure to share your answers to these questions with an attorney or accountant, if you are using one to start a church.
Determine what kind of non-profit filing is most appropriate
There are different levels of responsibility for ministries; formal churches have more laws and regulations governing them when compared to informal gatherings or ministries. A formal church is a legal entity with a corporate structure that usually falls under the non-profit corporation status filed with a state (as the Universal Life Church Ministries has done in Washington) or the federal government with the Internal Revenue Service (making the church a 501(c)(3) organization).
501(c)(3) non-profit legal status allows the organizations who have it to be tax exempt, i.e. not pay any income tax on church revenue. 501(c)(3) organizations are governed by many more laws and regulations, however. For example, 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations are barred from making overtly political statements by the IRS, while organizations that have their non-profit corporation filing done with the state (like the ULC Ministries) are able to.
All things included, there are substantial tax and legal differences between a formal church and a more informal ministry that you will need to research before you create either. Many of these differences are not immediately obvious and the Universal Life Church recommends that you consult an experienced attorney and/or accountant for advice about which filing you should aim for before you initiate any formal paperwork.
Regardless of what variety of filing you choose, you will need to establish a board of directors, corporate officers, and a set of bylaws or governing rules. The board of directors will also be asked to draft a belief statement that outlines your organization’s specific spiritual beliefs and practices. This is one of the more important components in the process of starting a church; many organizations in both the public and private sectors will only recognize a non-profit organization if it has a comprehensive belief statement.
Consider what kind of church you want yours to be
In matters not pertaining to legal filings or finances, perhaps the most important factors to consider about your future ministry is 1) the size of the congregation you would ideally like to minister to and 2) the breadth of activities you intend to engage in.
If you wish to start a church with hundreds of members that offers a wide range of ministerial/church services, you will have your work cut out for you when you attempt to find a worship space to hold your congregation in and employees to look after church activities. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to find small meeting spaces at community centers or in commercial real estate listings to hold your ministry if it amounts to little more than a bible study group.
Get an Employer Identification Number from the IRS
Every person who wants to start a church needs to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) through the Internal Revenue Service. An EIN allows you to formally hire and pay people on behalf of the church and enables the church to open a business bank account. If you have hired a business attorney to take care of the incorporation documents for your new church, he or she can easily file the form required to get an EIN, Form SS-4.
Form SS-4 can be found at the Internal Revenue Service’s website or at your local library. Once the IRS issues your church an EIN, they will send you a formal document about your EIN in the mail; this should be filed away with the other legal church documents. If you need further assistance, the IRS has a specialty business tax line that can be reached at 1-800-829-4933.
Open a church bank account
Opening up a business bank account is a relatively simple step in the process of starting a church. If all of your paperwork is in order, opening up a business bank account (the type of accounts banks give to churches) will not be difficult and should only take a couple of days.
To open a church bank account, the Universal Life Church advises you to contact your preferred bank and inquire about what church documents are required prior to filling out an application for one. Most banks will request copies of your church’s articles of incorporation, belief statement, corporate bylaws, documentation on your non-profit corporation status, the church’s EIN and, of course, the initial funds to open up your account.