What are Church Bylaws and When to Review Them (Sample Included)

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Charlie Cutler

Table of Contents

What are church bylaws?

Most churches have some type of internal document that sets the rules and expectations for its members in relation to the ministry. Usually, this document is referred to as the bylaws.

Church bylaws outline your ministry’s high-level decision-making. They define which actions, decisions, and policies are legitimate within your church.

Basically, this document acts as a type of contract between your church and its members. It details topics like your ministry’s purpose, organizational structure and leadership roles. It is often the foundation of your church’s internal rules and self-governance.

Keeping your bylaws current and up to date is a best practice for any ministry. In this article, we’ll explain the basics of this document and some best practices for ongoing risk management.

What is the purpose of church bylaws?

Bylaws are a key document for church governance, otherwise known as church polity. They help your church answer structural and leadership questions such as:

  • How do people join your church?
  • What is your voting process?
  • Who makes hiring decisions?
  • How do you discipline members?

These questions are important because they set the rules for how your church operates. This guidance helps everyone understand their duties and expectations towards the church. However, failing to abide by these rules can create legal trouble and potential liability.

Are church bylaws legally binding?

Your bylaws are a legal document that may support, or challenge, the acts of your church. They are basically an internal contract between your congregation and its members.

When people join your church, they are choosing to submit to this self-government. This agreement is spelled out in your bylaws and other governing documents.

One court in Kansas put it this way:

Bylaws are self-imposed rules, resulting from an agreement or contract between the corporation and its members to conduct the corporate business in a particular way. Until repealed, bylaws are the continuing rule for the government of the corporation and its officers. 

Schraft v. Leis, 686 P.2d 865 (Kan. 1984)

What is the difference between a constitution and bylaws?

Some churches use the term bylaws and constitution interchangeably to refer to the same document. Others treat the constitution and bylaws as separate documents. The use of the verbiage varies by church and denomination.

If your church has both a constitution and bylaws, the constitution usually supersedes the bylaws. In these circumstances, the most important rules are placed in the constitution while the bylaws focus on more procedural matters.

It’s important that an attorney review both documents to make sure they align with each other and the governance of your church.

What should church bylaws include?

Your church’s bylaws should reflect its unique identity and operations. Some important sections may include:

  1. Your church’s name and purpose: Your church’s name and its religious purpose.
  2. Duties and roles of officers: Define the responsibilities and election/removal processes for church officers.
  3. Membership requirements: Outline who can become a member, what their rights are, and the procedures for membership.
  4. Financial management: Topics can include who is authorized to enter a contract on behalf of the ministry, rules for taking on debt and who can issue checks.
  5. Conflict resolution: Your church’s expectations on how disputes are handled between members or between members and the ministry.
  6. Amendment procedures: Specify how the current bylaws can be repealed or amended and how new bylaws may be created in its place. It’s a good idea that all bylaws include a date and version number to help track changes over the course of the ministry.

Other items may include details on procedures for meetings, how to handle conflicts of interest and voting procedures.

For a full breakdown, download our church bylaws sample curtesy of Brotherhood Mutual.

When should we review our bylaws?

Many ministries unfortunately create bylaws when the organization first forms only to never review them again. The church’s operations may change, sometimes dramatically, from what was originally written.

If this happens, your ministry must choose to either:

  1. correct your current practices to align with your bylaws.
  2. amend the bylaws to reflect your current practices.

Best practice is to review your bylaws with qualified legal counsel every 3-4 years. Depending on the size and scope of your ministry, it may be best to review more frequently.

Always consult your bylaws before any major decisions or change in your ministry’s practices to make sure the action is handled properly.

What are the options for reviewing our bylaws?

Is it now time to review your bylaws? Here are three great options:

A free review through Brotherhood Mutual

We are glad to partner with Brotherhood Mutual’s Legal Assist service to provide a curtesy review of your ministry’s bylaws.

There is no charge for this service and is a great place to start for basic compliance. The service includes a checklist of recommended policies to make sure your church is hitting all the right areas.

Please note this service is not state specific and does not constitute Legal Advice. It is not a replacement for working with a local HR or legal professional who understands your state’s statutes and regulations.

Request your free bylaws review here.

Request a California legal review through BQB Law

Brockman Quayle Bennett (BQB, LLP) provides the absolute highest level of legal representation to its clients throughout the state of California.

If your ministry is in California and wants a review by the best in the business, look no further than our friends at BQB.

Request an operational audit through Church HR Network

Bylaws are only a piece of a healthy ministry operation. Comprehensive protection includes your governing documents, employee handbook, operating procedures and much more.

Most churches can’t afford a dedicated HR professional. In these situations, HR 360 by Church HR Network is a great option.

Learn more about operational audits for faith-based organizations.

Final Thoughts

Maintaining and regularly reviewing your church’s bylaws is critical for effective governance and risk management.

For more information, watch our full webinar with Church HR Network.

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Charlie Cutler

Charlie Cutler is the President of ChurchWest Insurance Services, a California-based agency that specializes in providing insurance solutions to churches and related ministries. Charlie has been with ChurchWest for over 20 years and has extensive experience in the insurance industry, with a particular focus on the unique risks and challenges facing Christian organizations. Charlie is a sought-after speaker and has presented at numerous conferences and seminars on insurance and risk management topics.

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