The primary roles of a trustee of a charity are legal and financial, specifically

  1. Safeguarding the charity by ensuring that the objects and purposes for which it exists are observed both inclusively and exclusively i.e. not operating outside the purposes for which it exists
  2. Ensuring good stewardship of finance

Trustees are not governmental over the ministry and direction of the church; that is the elders’ calling.

There is a third important role which I will deal with first; being an informal ‘sounding board’ of the church members to the elders. Sadly, people sometimes put elders on a pedestal, something I hate and something that no good leader would ever seek. Jesus put a towel around his waist and washed the disciples’ feet. But the people may nevertheless be reluctant to tell elders their true concerns.

Church trustees usually have less profile than elders and as a result may be more aware than the elders of any concerns. They can keep elders informed.

Protecting the objects of the charity
Much that a church does under the umbrella of a charity is assumed unless specifically excluded. For instance, a charity is usually directed in some way to helping those who are poor or in need. So, although this may not be precisely included in the objects it is nevertheless a part of a church’s work and ministry.

But there may be other objects that are more specifically defined – overseas mission, training etc. It is the role of the trustees to ensure that all the activities of the church falls under one of the objects stated and that it does not stray into other unstated areas such as business. (Business is, in fact, possible under certain circumstances, but it is beyond the scope of this short series and needs to be handled carefully with legal advice)

All legalities must of course be observed. Particularly, there are various procedures and protocols that are the trustees’ responsibility. These include ensuring that appropriate safeguarding policies are in place (eg child protection), risk assessments are carried out and regularly reviewed, health and safety matters are being dealt with, and so on. Stewardship have some helpful papers including some on trustees such as Frequently Asked Questions.

Much of the income of a church comes from the generosity of the members, often sacrificially. It is the role of the trustees to ensure that such funds are handled responsibly and accountably in a way that reflects the trust and the purposes for which such funds are given. They protect the interests of the donors by ensuring that finance is not mishandled.

Part of this stewardship is ensuring that there is good practice in all matters related to finance, from handling cash to budgeting, keeping records, producing management accounts and so on. Also, that where donations are made e.g. to an overseas ministry, there is good accountability and the trustees are satisfied that the funds are used for the intended purpose.

They should also ensure there is a ‘reserves policy’ i.e. funds available to cover any reasonable but unexpected eventuality. Typically this is expressed in terms of a number of months’ turnover.

One important application of finance may be the employment of church staff. In overseeing this it is important that the trustees protect the interests of the staff through providing for pensions, regulating holidays etc without turning the staff, particularly the eldership, into ‘hirelings’. The staff should be managed by the spiritual oversight; the trustees must just ensure that all good employment practice is in place. For example, it is not for the trustees to create job descriptions but merely to ensure that, where they exist, they are appropriate and permissible.

Who should be trustees?
It is tempting to think that the elders should also be the trustees. This would remove the ‘two-headed monster’ syndrome referred to in part 1. But this denies the benefits of additional skills being made available to the elders which they may not already have, particularly legal, financial, building management, human resources etc. A carefully selected board of trustees allows such professional skills to be available which may be invaluable to the health of the church.

In the final part of this series we will look at the ways in which elders and trustees can work together.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own. Legal advice should be sought appropriately before acting on any of these observations.


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