A preliminary observation
Since posting part 1 of this series I met with a staff member of a denominational church. That meeting reminded me that denominations often have their own legal frameworks, structures and terminology. The experience I have is based on independent, non-denominational churches and as such may vary in some respects from churches within denominations. So, I must reiterate that it is important that this series is taken as only my personal observations; appropriate legal advice should be sought when creating a new charity.
Although a church does not have to be a charity this is increasingly the norm, especially if the church wishes to enjoy the tax benefits afforded to charities such as the recovery of tax through Gift Aid (in the UK) on donations that have been made out of taxed income. But charitable status potentially produces a conflict:
1. Trustees are responsible for the governance of a charity
2. Elders (the term I shall use from now on for the spiritual leadership) are responsible before God for the leadership of the church
The result? A two-headed monster! So, who makes decisions?
There is a helpful paper (Guide to churches on spiritual leadership and trustees) available from the Stewardship website which very helpfully addresses this issue, the double-headed leadership of elders and trustees. Further, in the UK, the potential conflict between these two leadership bodies is recognised and understood by the Charity Commission. So any potential conflict should not exist provided that both bodies, particularly the trustees, are spiritually mature and do not try to push their remit too far.
For myself I chaired the trustees (in fact, directors – we had a charitable company structure) of Church of Christ the King in Brighton, UK, for 30 years and enjoyed a positive and mutually supportive relationship with the body of elders, of which I was a member for some of this time. Initially, when the church was quite small, the trustees did little but lend support to the elders in their decisions, ensuring that they fell within the charitable objectives of the charity. As the church grew there was an increasing need for specialists to be appointed as trustees who could bring ‘added value’ to elders’ decision-making with professional expertise in the law, building matters, finance and so on. They could thus complement the gifting represented in the eldership.
The role of trustees
I saw the primary role of trustees in the church context as having two main elements:
1. To be guardians of the objectives of the trust
2. To ensure responsible stewardship of the finances by carefully monitoring how these are administered and audited
This was obviously not their total role; for instance, trustees are also expected to explain themselves and the church policies/actions to the outside world if necessary, although this was rarely needed in the context in which I worked. So trustees were chosen as men and women who were comfortable for the elders to make decisions related to the direction and fulfilment of the church’s commission. But they were far more than ‘rubber stampers’. They actively monitored, commented on, adjusted and offered support to these decisions from the perspective of seeing that the charity aspects were run effectively. As faithful and faith-filled people committed to the work of the church they always operated to a high standard of excellence.
Risk v Faith – do they conflict?
What happened when elders made a ‘risky’ decision which required finances that, in the natural, were not readily available? Our responsibility as trustees was to look at the finances and the risks associated with the decision and ensure that the elders fully understood what these were. Once we were sure these were clearly understood we could then, as members of the church, throw our support and faith (and personal finances!) behind the leadership of the elders and join them in seeking God for his provision. We had many exciting times in prayer and, surprise surprise, God never let us down!
Next time we shall look at greater depth into the appointment of trustees.
Footnote re Tax
Several times in this posting I have mentioned finance. It is beyond the remit of this series to explore the intricacies of finance, particularly tax, in any more detail. However, I have found that many people live under the misapprehension that charities are VAT-exempt. This is not true. A charity is fully liable to pay VAT on its purchases and indeed fulfil all the relevant tax requirements of the law. It is particularly important to seek professional advice if, as a charity, you may be trading; there are some very specific requirements and constraints on trading as a charity.