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Matt Branaugh: We kind of consider it the ‘eat your vegetables’ side of ministry. No one loves to do it, but everyone should.
Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Carl. I'm a small church pastor. And welcome to this episode of Can this Work at a Small Church? My guest today is Matt Branaugh, and the subject is current issues in church law and tax. Matt is an attorney at law and the content editor for Church Law and Lax. He has a wealth of experience that is so helpful for churches and ministers.
And in this conversation, Matt and I talk about some of the biggest recent issues in these important areas. You know, the things we hate to do, but need to do. But don't worry, Matt doesn't use geek speak so his advice is clear, understandable, and very applicable.
And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question: Can this work in a small church?
Well, welcome, Matt Branaugh, to the podcast today. Appreciate you being with us.
Matt Branaugh: Great. Thanks a lot, Pastor Karl. It’s really great to be here.
Karl Vaters: Thank you. Well, let's start by talking about you and what you actually do since you're not...Quite often we'll have pastors on this. You are not a pastor, but you provide a lot of great services for pastors and churches.
So how did you come to Church Law and Tax and what do you do there?
Matt Branaugh: Yeah. So I've been with CT since 2007, so just about 15 years. And prior to coming aboard, I was a business journalist. I worked in a daily newspaper environment. The opportunity to join CT could blend my journalism skills, my interest in business and administration,and it could also tap into my lifelong journey as someone who's been a part of the church. So it was a really nice intersection of those three things, and brought me to a point where I could join the CT ministry, which I had admired from afar from really an early age since, like, junior high. So effectively what the opportunity involved was for me to be an editor that would help our area devoted to church legal issues. So editing content through our newsletters or websites, and then through print and digital resources that really help churches and pastors navigate law issues, finance issues, tax, and risk management issues.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, you do the stuff that most pastors, not only do we not feel particularly adequate in it, but it gives us the heebie-jeebies every time we...it's like the third rail of the subway system. We don't even want to touch it, just can somebody else take care of all of this icky stuff for me, dealing with law and tax and everything else. But that is… Not only you, but Church Law and Tax are really one of the, maybe the preeminent of people doing that business within the United States of America, for sure. So yeah, you, you...Every time I see you, I feel better because it's like somebody else out there knows that, and if I run into something, I know a place I can go, which is really, to me, the great benefit that you provide for so many churches.
Matt Branaugh: That's right. Well, and we kind of consider it the ‘eat your vegetables’ side of ministry. No one loves to do it, but everyone should.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, exactly. You know, that's a better metaphor than the third rail, because if you don't deal with it correctly, then you've got the third rail issues going on. If you eat your vegetables then you can keep running the way you should. So yeah, I love that metaphor. That's great. So let's jump right into the subject matter. There's, you know, there's never been a time and there never will be a time where legal and tax issues are not affecting how we operate as a church. It just simply is a matter of course. Just like, you know, the Bible talks so much about finances because finances affect and impact and are an expression of even our faith in a whole lot of ways. What you do does that as well. So what would you say are maybe the top five legal issues that most churches are confronting today? Because you guys really serve as a clearing house. You talk with a lot of congregations, so you really have a pulse on the American church. Give us some sense from maybe the top five issues confronting the church today.
Matt Branaugh: Sure. Well, and let me just make one quick observation. I know a lot of times when I talk with people, they say, boy, it seems like churches are dealing with legal issues more and more, and is this, you know, a sign of persecution, is it a sign of, you know, ways that we're being targeted? And there could be a little bit of truth to that in certain instances and certain circumstances, but really from our experience over the last 30, 40, 50 years, the increase in legal issues for churches is more a function of just our society. You know, we're just more litigious as a society. We just see more laws passed now, we just see more scrutiny and more oversight that's being propagated by the government, and so you know, churches are really not immune to that and are subjected to it alongside many other sectors and spheres of life.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, I appreciate that take on it because I hear the same thing. Oh, churches are being persecuted. It may feel like persecution if you're in the church and all of a sudden there's all this extra, all of these extra hoops you have to jump through, some of which quite frankly are unreasonable. But if you talk to a restaurateur, they're feeling the same thing. If you talk to a CEO, they're feeling the same thing. If you're talking to somebody running a preschool, they're feeling the same thing. So what you're telling us is that we,... It is not what...While there may be some unreasonable demands upon churches now that we didn't have before, we are not… Even if there is some targeting going on within certain segments, we are not alone in being targeted, at bare minimum, right?
Matt Branaugh: That's right. That’s exactly right.
Karl Vaters: And to me, it's important to look at and understand that because I think if we approach it primarily from a being persecuted standpoint, we're not going to be responding correctly. There are ways you respond to being persecuted that are different than the ways you respond to regulation, or maybe even over-regulation. But you respond to those two things in different ways, don’t you?
Matt Branaugh: That's exactly it. And in many respects, when you feel that you're being persecuted, you're going to respond in a manner that is defensive. And when you think about things more in terms of we're just in a society that is more litigious, you might start to think about how you're going to respond in a more proactive way.
Karl Vaters: There you go.
Matt Branaugh: And I think in a lot of the issues that we'll discuss today, proactive, prevention, you know, those kinds of steps make all the difference in the kinds of issues that churches may ultimately end up facing. It may reduce or certainly minimize the kind of pain that they might experience.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. That's important framing of it. So let's get to some of those issues, then. What are we facing?
Matt Branaugh: I, I can't take credit for this particular list. This is one that really comes from the wisdom and research and writing of our co-founder and senior editor, Richard Hammer. He along with another gentleman by the name of Jim Cauble co-founded Church Law and Tax, all the way back in the 1980s. And at the time, Rich wrote a book called Pastor Church and Law. It's now in its fifth edition. And that was sort of the impetus behind Church Law and Tax and how it got off the ground. But one of the things that Rich did as a part of that book, and then subsequently with his writing for our newsletters and our website - and that continues on even to this very day - is he just reads hundreds upon hundreds of cases on a regular basis.
Karl Vaters: He is a human machine on this stuff, he is amazing, isn't he?
Matt Branaugh: He really is. I'm always asked, How are you going to replace Rich Hammer, and I say, you don't and if you do it's, you know, it's a cast of thousands. It's not one person. And he's just a really remarkable individual. He's just been gifted by God in many ways, many respects. I have a great deal of admiration for him. And he continues strong even here in 2021 doing really, really important work. And that work includes reading these cases. And he does a little bit of leg work when he reads these cases to categorize them and try to figure out, well, what kind of trends or patterns develop by reading, you know, the types of things that end up leading churches or religious organizations into court. And that really has developed this list that I can share with you, and it gives us a sense of what the top five legal issues are. And, you know, sadly, number one on the list - and this has been number one really almost every year over the last 20, 25 years, there's maybe been an exception now and then, but it's perennially the top reason - and that's an allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor. So you know, regrettably, we know that issue has been pervasive in our society. It seems like even more so over the last few years, I think a lot of that is more just awareness and more willingness on the part of victims or victims’ families to come forward. So we're seeing a lot come out now, but I think it's just always been there, you know, underneath the surface for a long, long time, and Rich's experience reading these cases certainly bears that out, as far as issues that unfortunately involve church pastors, church volunteers, church leaders perpetrating some kind of abuse against a minor. So that has been number one, unfortunately, on the list for a long, long time.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. And then of course, I mean, obviously the initial incident or incidents are beyond horrifying. It's the kind of thing you don't even want to dwell on it all, because trying to imagine how someone could do that to a child is beyond belief. But then very quickly it's followed by needing to respond correctly when you discover even the allegation, let alone any proof of it. And my flyover estimation of it is that we typically have not... We have not responded well, historically, to these allegations. We are now in the middle of a much over needed correction to call us to account, to respond better. And that makes right now a really difficult time. Because as you correctly framed it, a lot of what's happening now is that because now people are understanding the importance of reporting this, we're getting past reports of things that were never reported before. Because thankfully now we're recognizing this is important, it must be reported, it must be followed up on, we must deal correctly and justly with perpetrators, and we must treat victims better than we have. But that kind of releases a dam of allegations that have been pent up for a long time, and it puts us in a very difficult time right now for this, I guess. Right now I'm just kind of riffing on the idea, I'm just kind of letting out some of my own pent up emotion on this. I don't even know if there's a real question in there, but it does make it a challenging time, even legally in responding...So that we can, first of all, morally correctly to the issue, but then also legally correctly to the issue as well.
Matt Branaugh: Yes. And you're setting this up, I think, in a really important way, which is how do we become more attuned and sensitive to the victims and the victims’ families. I think for too long, unfortunately, there was always the sense of, well, what does this mean for the institution as the church, and what does this mean for our specific local church, and how do we ensure that we're not seeing our witness tarnished as a result of these kinds of situations. And that's been a wrong way of coming at this, and I think people are becoming more aware of this now. Really what we have to think about is, one, how do we prevent anyone from becoming a victim, right? How do we take the right steps up front to minimize that risk? And then to your point here, if the unthinkable occurs, if it arises, if we suspect something or if we know of something directly, how do we respond effectively? How do we make sure that we meet some legal obligations, which churches in nearly every state have, as far as reporting to local authorities when they become aware of actual or suspected abuse, but then also, how do we make sure we do the necessary work to care for the victim, for the victim's family? How do we make sure we also do the right work to find a third party to come in and investigate so things are handled in a thorough and objective manner, and so on and so forth?
Karl Vaters: Yeah. And you listeners, the show notes will be link heavy for this episode. It's the nature of the subject matter and the thoroughness of Matt’s research. So you've already sent me several of these links. There will be a link in the show notes about a really good article about minimizing the risk of child molestation in churches, because that's job one, is to make sure no child gets hurt ever again. And then after… But we know we live in a broken world where bad things happen and things will happen - hopefully not in your church - but if it does then how do we respond in a more correct moral way and a correct legal way as well. But step one is to minimize that risk. So in the show notes, you'll get links on that. So I don't want to go down this because that would be an entire episode on its own, and as big as that issue is, I don't want to feel like I'm short changing it either. But bottom line is before anything does happen, make sure you're getting the proper information about minimizing that risk to kids, and if something has happened or even just an allegation has been made that you're not sure how to prove, still responding correctly is important for those that are making the claims, that those that are potentially victims of the claims, and to correct treatment of the person who's been accused. There's so much complication in that. So seek the help immediately. We'll just have to leave that very important subject at that spot for now. So that's number one. Sadly, it's been number one, like you say, for almost every one of the last 25 years, that's just a horrifying thought. But let's move along to something still challenging, but far less significant and important and...And challenging than that, hopefully, but still important.
Number two on that list would be what?
Matt Branaugh: So fortunately the remaining four on this list feel a little less personal. They feel a little bit more neutral, and that's at least a reprieve for us given the gravity of that first one, as you say. The second one is property disputes and you know, really what this really boils down to is the, you know, the conversation about who owns the church property, who owns the church building. We see it arise quite a bit when you have a local church that is in conflict with its parent denomination, and then that becomes a tension point as far as if that local church wishes to break away. Well, who ends up with the property? Is it the denomination? Is it the church? And those oftentimes get played out in court. And you also see property disputes dealing with covenants, eminent domain, adverse possession, some other kind of legal terms that your audience may or may not be familiar with. But those are the types of issues that are triggered when it comes to property.
Karl Vaters: Gotcha. Yeah. And again, a lot of information on there. We'll put a link for that. Number three?
Matt Branaugh: Number three is, you know, what we call in the legal profession, your slips, trips and falls. These are personal injuries. You know, you have somebody that comes to church, maybe it's snowing outside. The walks have been cleared, but there's some ice that formed, someone slips, falls and they injure themselves. And then they in turn file a lawsuit against the church saying, Hey, I was hurt because you were negligent and you didn't take care of your property the way you should, and so I am seeking remedy, now I'm seeking monetary damages to help with the costs associated with my injury. Those kinds of cases are what typically fall into this category.
Karl Vaters: Okay. Number four,
Matt Branaugh: Four is zoning disputes. So this is a little bit of an offshoot from the property disputes, but it's a little bit different too. This is where you have a church that's wanting to do something with its property for religious purposes, for worship services or some kind of ministry outreach, and they run into some kind of conflict with the local municipality, as far as whether that kind of activity is allowed based on the zoning for that specific piece of property. As you've noted, we'll include this in the show notes. One of the things that churches have at their disposal is a somewhat unknown federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It's a mouthful.
Karl Vaters: RLUIPA.
Matt Branaugh: It’s RLUIPA, that's how it’s often referred to. Some people call it R-Lupa and some people call it Ray Lupa. And it's just, you know, it's a mouthful no matter how you try to spin it. But it's a really powerful law. We've just put out some new material on it. That can help churches when they're dealing with a conflict with a local municipality, a zoning board, even a neighborhood association if there's some kind of activity there that's trying to limit what a church can do with its property for religious purposes. There's some protections there to help churches out.
Karl Vaters: Great. Great. And number five then would be?
Matt Branaugh: Number five, just, you know, insurance coverage disputes. It sounds as glamorous as I've made it here. It's just, you know, where you have an insurance policy and, and then you go to make a claim and your insurer says, Nope, we're not going to provide coverage for any number of different reasons, and oftentimes that ends up getting litigated in court. And that's just a good reminder here for your listeners that you should be reviewing your insurance policy, talking with your agent or broker on a regular basis, and just making sure you understand what's covered and why, and how much coverage you have, what kinds of notification requirements you have if you do have a potential claim that you're going to file. Those kinds of things are typically included in your policy, you just want to be reviewing those regularly and making sure that you're prepared in the event you need to use it.
Karl Vaters: Gotcha. That five, talk about a range of emotions from the horrifying to the tedious in a very short list of things. But I wanted to cover that because just for the typical listener who's in a congregation, the leader of a small church especially, in that list, if your church hasn't faced some of those, One, you first of all need to protect yourself and protect others so that that doesn't happen. These are the five big things that are likely to hit us. My guess is that 90% of the people listening have some familiarity with at least one of those, because they... These are the things, when you add them all up, that typically happen within churches, the kinds of legal things that we have to face.
So, first of all, by knowing that list helps you realize you're not alone, there are others who are dealing with it, and therefore there's expertise out there to deal with it. And two, it gives you a list of things to look at, to start being proactive about making sure that you don't have these things happen, that you are protecting the children, that you have your legal property documents in order, that you have a safe facility that people aren't likely to hurt themselves on, or if they do trip that they can be proven that it wasn't your fault because you did go out of your way to make sure that your property was safe, that you have proper insurance. So start by being proactive on those five, and if you find yourself in any difficulty in those, Church Law and Tax would be a great place to go to start to get some help on that. But I think just about everybody listening is going to go, Yeah, at least one of those feels far too familiar to them.
Matt Branaugh: And just to add to that for a second it's also one of those moments when you're a church leader and you have only a limited amount of time and resources. You sit down and you say, Well, how do we avoid getting sued. Well, you know, you could go in any number of directions and the possibilities seem limitless. And what this list does is it helps narrow the conversation so that if you say, well, if we only have so much time and energy and resources, can we at least do something in each of these five areas as acts of prevention, and that's gonna make a wonderful difference as far as positioning your church to avoid future problems.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. If you take care of those five things, you reduce the likelihood of being sued, not to zero, that will never happen, but you reduce it about as substantially as you're going to be capable of, probably, if you deal with those five well. Yeah.
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All right, let's move from that to another topic of conversation that comes up with Church Law and Tax an awful lot when pastors are talking to each other, and that's the clergy housing allowance. There's always conversation about it, I'm always hearing in the news something's about to change, or maybe something has changed and it turns out it hasn't. So I want to come straight to the folks who know about it. Where are we with housing allowance right now? And is there any way to predict where it might go in the future?
Matt Branaugh: That's a great question. It's been something that has been... Well, first of all, just as a starting point, the clergy housing allowance, for your listeners, if they aren't already aware, it's probably one of the most beneficial tax benefits that ministers can receive, and it costs churches nothing. It is a way to help your minister as far as their living expenses, their housing expenses, in particular, and you don't have to spend additional monies out of the church budget to make that available to them. And so we point that out because too often churches overlook this or don't think through it. It's really on the pastor to request it, but it's on the church to help ensure that it gets set. And, you know, through that conversation, doing this, pursuing it can make a big difference as far as a minister’s livelihood when we know that resources are already very, very limited, and so compensation packages are oftentimes not where we'd like them to be. And this benefit is there as a way to at least provide some reprieve.
Unfortunately, it's been challenged legally quite a bit over the last 10, 12 years in particular. There was a... Or there is an organization by the name of the Freedom From Religion Foundation that has challenged it on constitutional grounds a number of times, and its most recent challenge got defeated in 2019, which is great news for churches and for ministers.
Essentially the seventh circuit court of appeals came out and said, No, the clergy housing allowance is constitutional, it is permissible, it doesn't violate the establishment clause of the first amendment, and therefore we see it as being something that churches should be able to offer to the ministers in the same way that many other professions outside of ministry provide to their employees for similar reasons. And so that's great news. It's legal, it's constitutional, it's available. There's really no sign at this point of any legal challenge being brought against it. We'll of course, continue to monitor that and update people if we do learn of that kind of situation, but over the last two years or so, we just haven't seen anything surface that would suggest that it's in any way, shape or form in jeopardy.
Karl Vaters: Okay. Well, that's great news. And just as a quick shorthand for those who may not be aware of what that is, it really is simply whatever the church is paying to the pastor, you can redirect a percentage of that and sometimes the entire thing, depending on how much towards whatever the pastor is actually paying for their housing costs from the rent or mortgage on their home, to their electrical bill, and so on, and it comes to them as tax-free income rather than taxable income. So it's literally just a change in the categorization of how the pastor is paid. So it costs neither party anything, but it saves the pastor quite often significant amounts on tax. And as you said, that's very helpful because the average pastor is paid far less than other people, given our experience, our expertise and our educational background. I think we are consistently the lowest paid professionals out there, which no complaints here at all. We know what we're getting into when we get into it. Very few pastors, if any, get into it for the money, despite what the headlines look like. So that's what that's about. Yeah.
Matt Branaugh: We do have in our annual Church and Clergy Tax Guide, I believe it's in chapter six, we provide a lot of additional specific information about how someone qualifies to receive the housing allowance, how you set that housing allowance, and some other parameters that you want to make sure you follow. bBut your description here is correct. It is a benefit that's available widely for most ministers and should be taken advantage of.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. All right. Let's go to where we're all still in the middle of now, and it looks like we'll still be in somewhat in the middle of for a while: The pandemic, whether places are in lockdowns or not, whether people have started to worship in person or not. There are a lot of legal issues around that. What are some of the key legal issues that you're hearing from churches about ministry during pandemic, and how do we respond to them?
Matt Branaugh: The evolution of this topic is really pretty fascinating. You know, we, started out the pandemic and it was about, can we meet, can we even convene together, can we gather together, how can we do online ministry? How do we figure out ways to still serve and minister in the midst of the crisis? And then we started meeting again in some way. Then it was about, you know, masks and safety precautions, health precautions. Now, obviously we've moved into the territory related to vaccinations and some of those conversations. What I would like to focus on here is just trying to emphasize a couple of key things for your listeners, which is, you know, one, that in-person ministry can and should be happening. It's not a matter now so much of whether we should be coming together. We do see that that is permissible and over the vast majority of the country. But with that in mind, there should really be still an awareness and a recognition of what your local and state and even federal municipalities are having to say about what those gatherings should look like.
There are some places that have requirements related to masks or distancing or other protocols. We think those should be taken seriously. We think that leaders should be, you know, listening to those kinds of guidelines and figuring out ways to implement those in a reasonable way with their ministries. And in large part, and from a legal perspective, it's because you don't want to have a situation arise later where an outbreak occurs in your congregation, a number of people become ill. You know, the unthinkable happens, maybe someone dies and then you face this possibility of someone saying, well, but for your church meeting and breaking regulations that were recommended by your local municipalities, this person wouldn't have gotten sick and died.
And so by recognizing those recommendations or that guidance and adhering to those as best as you can, it does really help your church minimize the legal risks that are involved, but it also ensures what we think are good practices, as far as keeping people healthy, keeping people safe, and ultimately doing what we all want to do, which is to be together again.
Karl Vaters: Okay. Let's talk about another issue that's probably far more in the headlines than it is an actual reality. At least I certainly hope so. Which is a financial misconduct within the church. There was a theft or there was an embezzlement, or there was the accusation of an embezzlement. One of the first lessons I learned as an early pastor was don't touch the finances and anybody who does physically have to handle the money, there should always be two people there with the cash, with the checks. There should always be proper systems in place overseeing that, so that if an accusation of fraud or theft or embezzlement is made, you can prove a line that shows it, that it wasn't there. And it protects people from that actually happening by nobody being alone with the finances. But what's happening in that area? What can you help us out with to protect ourselves, to show that truly innocent people are innocent, and then to follow up if some fraud has occurred?
Matt Branaugh: Well, and the way you frame that at the end of your question, I think is really important. What we try to stress at Church Law and Aax and what the CPAs and other individuals that work with us really try to impress upon church leaders on a continual basis is, you know, when you put internal controls in place within your congregations, it's not because you are trying to be paranoid, it's not because you're trying to be distrustful of those who are leading or serving. It's really designed to protect the church and it's designed to protect the individual. Because to your point, sometimes something can happen. It could just be a very honest error that occurs, and we don't want that person to suddenly be cast into a light that subjects them to unnecessary or unfair scrutiny. And internal controls can have that ability to help prevent that from ever even arising.
Karl Vaters: Or even in a situation where let's say you've got somebody who is a trusted member of the church, but they have fallen into some financial difficulty that surprises them. You don't want to put them in a position where there's even the ability for them to pull a hundred off the top, and thinking, I'm going to put it back in next week. And this is a person who normally wouldn't do it if the opportunity wasn't presented. Let's make sure that nobody is ever presented with the opportunity for that temptation to become real in their life.
Matt Branaugh: That’s an excellent point. It's something that comes up in some work that we've actually recently done on this topic. So we did a survey - a nationwide survey - back in the spring of 2021, and we ended up getting responses from more than 700 church leaders, and among those church leaders about a third said that they had been a part of a congregation that had experienced some kind of financial misconduct at some point in the past. And among that group, half of them said it happened within the last 10 years. Those statistics are eye-opening for a few different reasons. One is because as we've looked at this topic, and as I in particular have looked at this topic over the last 15 years, you know, the figure tends to run more in the 10 to 15% range when someone is asked, Has your church dealt with this. So to see it more in the 30% range was really startling for both me and for those that were involved with this project. And along with that, you know, as you have talked with people with these other surveys in the past, there was always the sense that, well, 10 to 15% seems really low. It doesn't sound quite like what we think it might actually be. And so this survey almost sort of confirmed for the first time, at least for us, that it is more prevalent than we would expect, and sadly as our results also showed, there's really no pattern as far as the churches that are susceptible. It can be a church really of any size, any setting, any location. So from some of your smallest churches to some of your largest. And in the instance where a church has experienced this, the primary reasons why it occurred, according to our respondents at least, was one, we didn't have the internal controls in place that we probably should have had; And two, we didn't have the internal controls in place because we never thought it could happen to us. And in fact, we know Joe and we trust Joe, and there's no reason for us - we're a really small congregation, we don't think that Joe would ever do something like this. Well, you don't have the internal controls in place, and as you point out, Carl, there's some kind of financial crisis that Joe encounters, he has an opportunity along with the collections one Sunday morning, there's no one around, there's no internal control in place for that. That's a temptation, that's a hard temptation. And so one of the CPAs that advised our project, Nathan Saulsberry from Cape and Crouse, he made the comment, you know, these internal controls are designed to help minimize that temptation because we're all susceptible to temptation of one form or another at one point or another. And these systems are designed to try and mitigate that.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, absolutely. It protects everybody. It protects the giver, it protects the church, it protects the people who are counting it, it protects the person who might be in a difficult financial situation from having a temptation that will be hard to overcome. And even if you don't discover it, then you've got somebody who pulled $10 off the top of the offering and has got that sin sitting on their heart right now that they could not have committed if we had just put proper checks in place to protect them in their moment of weakness. So all of that together is very helpful to do.
And before we start to round this up again, let's take the shift over to specifically the small church. Obviously everything so far is applicable in churches of all sizes, but let's just get to one question about the specifically small congregation. If you're in a small church and you simply - Your budget is either tight or non-existent for finding legal aid when you need it, what are some options for small congregations that simply can't afford the kind of high-priced attorney that we've got in our head that we just think is going to start costing us a couple of hundred dollars an hour?
Matt Branaugh: It’s a great question, and really what we have encountered with Church Law and Tax over the years. And really one of the primary reasons why we exist as a not-for-profit ministry is we're trying to help small and mid-sized churches in particular navigate a lot of these issues, knowing that they can't go out and hire the legal expertise to do it.
Karl Vaters: Yep.
Matt Branaugh: Now that takes you only so far. You can do good, good systems, good processes, you can put some preventative measures in place, you can do a lot of training. And in fact, I think that's the first answer to your question, which is when you engage in those kinds of activities, you will start to reduce some of the costs that you would have to incur if you were to go out and seek legal counsel.
And so an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Is that the saying? I think that's probably very true in this instance, we would advocate for that. And so our resources, our materials are really designed with that in mind to help educate and prepare churches and help them train and equip those who are leading.
So that's really kind of a starting point. I think a couple of other thoughts come to mind. One is invariably at some point or another, and really in any church's life, it's going to encounter something that probably requires some legal help. So some kind of assistance from an attorney. And there are some different ways that you can go about that. You can tap into networks, you probably have someone on your board, they might be an attorney, maybe someone in your congregation, and that's okay. But we would be cautious in advising that for a couple of reasons. One is because those individuals may not be very well versed in church legal issues. They may specialize in some form of law that is completely removed and different from church legal issues.
So don't just assume that because a person is an attorney, they're going to know how to handle a specific issue or question. But tap into those individuals for a couple of reasons. One, they might know others in your community who are equipped to do that. And they can also at least help you start to get a little bit of an understanding of the size and scope and magnitude of the issue of whether or not it is really important for you to seek out additional counsel.
If you do find that you need counsel, you can have a consultation with an attorney up front, and you can ensure that when you talk to that attorney, you understand what their fee structures are, how the attorney is going to get paid. You know, some of those kinds of things up front. And you can also communicate, We're a small church, we're on a very limited budget, so as a result, we're going to be limited in what we can do. And sometimes the attorney, knowing that, has the ability to sit with you and say, Okay, well, if that's the case, let's prioritize the work that we're going to do, and maybe we knock out a couple of the really big and important things up front. Some of these other things maybe could be set aside and come back to later when more budget or more resources are available to handle those items. So it gives a better sense of prioritization that can make, make it a little bit more - a little bit more palatable as far as the costs are concerned.
Karl Vaters: As you mentioned earlier, an ounce of prevention, the least expensive legal advice you could give anybody is preventative. Whatever money it takes you or time it takes you up front to spend that time or money preventing any of these things from taking place. First of all, it means less damage being done to people, which is the most important thing.
But secondly, from a legal standpoint, it also protects you from all of this. And from a financial standpoint, it is going to be far cheaper to pay for the prevention up front than to pay a penalty later for not having prevented it.
Matt Branaugh: That is true in so many different ways. You know, examples that come to mind immediately, if you write a really effective policy, let's say on child abuse prevention, and you have an attorney helping with that and getting that set and then, you know, working on the policy implementation and the training that comes with it. You know, that could prevent an abuse claim later that could run into catastrophic amounts of money.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. It can actually do a couple of things. One, it can hopefully prevent the abuse at all. Secondly, if there's - if there's an allegation made and there is no abuse, because that does happen to a small percentage, but there are some abuse allegations that are made that are without basis, it can protect you there as well, because you can show how these things were put in place. And if you've got a camera, for instance, showing that time, that place and nothing occurs, you can protect people. And then thirdly, if you know, God forbid, some horrifying thing does happen, it helps you to respond in the correct way to help, first of all, the victims, and secondly, to make sure that the church makes it through properly.
Matt Branaugh: One other thing I'll just mention briefly here, there are some options at times for churches to tap into where they can find legal aid that’s at low cost or no cost. And I would just make mention here of the Christian Legal Society, that's an organization that I'm a member of as an attorney myself and know many other attorneys who are members of, and they run Christian legal aid clinics all over the country.
They also have directories of attorneys that are located throughout the country. And you can contact those attorneys. May not always be able to do low cost or no cost, but in certain instances that may be possible. And so, you know, look into that as a possibility too, if you're in need of legal assistance and knowing that you're limited in the resources that you have to use as far as addressing it.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. And a couple of reasons to go to things like Christian Legal Society and Church Law and Tax, to places that specialize in church law. First of all, the law and finances are very, very, very complex. Just like when you go to a doctor, you've got your general practitioner, but then you're going to go to a specialist if things get challenging, and there are so many different specializations. So people who specialize in the church are going to have an understanding of it, that somebody who isn't specializing in church isn't going to have. And then secondly, it's kind of the mass production thing too. If you've got a group that is doing this kind of work regularly, it's like they've got a template set up for it. They're likely to be able to do it cheaper because they're not going to have to put in the research because the research has already been done. They already know what they're doing. So you're capitalizing on their expertise, even in the financial payout, is my guess, at least hopefully.
All right. We're going to move from that to the lightning round questions and see how you match up against these. All right, are you ready, Matt?
Matt Branaugh: I am ready.
Karl Vaters: All right. What are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years, and how have you adapted to it?
Matt Branaugh: Yeah, so I started out my career as a print journalist. You know, especially in the last few years being Church Law and Tax, doing work, helping churches with information they need, the resources they need. We've seen a dramatic shift as far as how people get their information. So we used to print two newsletters; we don't print those anymore. We do everything through our website. And we've also, you know, we've done a lot more as far as offering webinars, you know, events that can help people attend and learn through a virtual setting. And we're increasingly doing more video and multimedia now. We've got a new podcast we just released called the Church Law Podcast. We’ve just done a project related to that law I mentioned earlier, the Religious Land Use Law. We've got a virtual round table that we've just done on that subject. And it's all with this idea in mind that people now are used to getting their information through video, through interactive types of situations. And so just printing something out and expecting people to read it is just not the name of the game anymore. It has its place, but it's one thing among many, rather than being the only thing.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. And you folks at Church Law and Tax have really jumped on that really well. You do the online teaching quite well, whether it's live webinars or things that you can watch later, or the live webinar that you can watch later. In fact, I'm on the advisory team with you, and you and I have never been physically in the same room together, and yet we hang out and chat like we know each other because every meeting has been online. So you guys have adapted to that very, very well.
All right. Second question. What free resource like an app or a website has helped you lately that you would recommend for small church ministry?
Matt Branaugh: Yeah, this is a tool that I came across about four years ago when I was in law school. And what I was finding - and I don't know if your listeners will relate to this or not - but I'm a lists guy. I like making lists and knowing what I need to get done and checking those things off as I get them done. And I used to do that manually. I used to write out my list. I thought that was a really good way to kind of make sure that I could, you know, know what I was working on and prioritize. And of course, as you know, your list changes by the minute. And so doing that manually became really, really clunky. I came across a site that has an app that's associated with it fhat's called workflowy, and it has been just a game changer for me, as far as keeping lists, keeping multiple lists so I can keep track of things going on various fronts with work and with projects. It syncs very seamlessly with my app on my phone. It's just been a real productivity boost for me. And the great thing is if you don't want to spend the money on the monthly subscription, and I don't think it's too costly, but if you wanted to just use the free version, you can do that. You just are limited to the number of lists that you can make, but you know, if that's all you need, it can prove to be very useful and it's free.
Karl Vaters: Great. I assume that's just workflow with an I tacked onto the end?
Matt Branaugh: Actually with a Y.
Karl Vaters: With a Y. With a Y tacked onto the end. I was thinking Y, and I said, I, and I don't know why. Alrighty. Question number three. What's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?
Matt Branaugh: Well, I've thought about this for awhile and it was a little intimidating because I'm thinking, you know, I'm probably getting this... I'm probably looking to you and to people that listen to this podcast for this kind of guidance, so I don't know if what I'm going to have to share is going to be valuable or not. But this is something that came up… You know, with Church Law and Tax, we get a ton of questions daily from readers all over the country. Even people that aren't members of our website contact us looking for help and assistance.
At the time I was reporting to our editor, Marshall Shelley - that's the name that you and others may recognize. He was for a long time the editor of Leadership Journal, and just a wonderful mentor and friend. And I was explaining to him how hard it is, getting all these questions and not being able to answer all of them. And Marshall said, You know, I always look to some words of wisdom that I think Pastor Andy Stanley had shared at one time, which is, Each day do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. And while I don't necessarily just limit it to one each day, I do try to keep in mind, I can only do so much and so if I only answer one or two questions for readers and I have to let others go, at least I was doing something as far as being helpful and responsive, rather than nothing, which is what we might resort to if we feel paralyzed by the volume that we face.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. A wonderful encouraging reminder, especially for those who are in small congregations, because sometimes we feel like we're not doing enough for enough people, but just deal with the folks God gave you and do what you can that day and leave the rest of it in the Lord's hands. That's great ministry advice.
And then the final one: What is the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in a church?
Matt Branaugh: Again, a little intimidating. You know, I don't want to sound too critical, too negative. So I thought about this for a while. So I grew up...Basically from the age of four on, I grew up in the Evangelical Covenant Church. I'm a native of Denver, grew up in one of the suburbs there, went to a Covenant church there and was confirmed there. And I distinctly remember in high school in a worship service, our senior pastor at the time - a man that I love and respect and just have a great, great deal of admiration for - in fact, that he was the person that introduced me to CT when he knew I was interested in journalism.
One Sunday morning during the worship services, he invited a gentleman to come up and give a testimonial. And I think the lesson out of this is make sure you know what this person's going to share as part of their testimony. So he stands in front of the congregation and proceeds to share. I think he is in his twenties at the time. He proceeds to share the ugly and painful details of a breakup with a woman that also attends that church.
Karl Vaters: Oh no.
Matt Branaugh: I distinctly remember sitting and just squirming in my seat because it was so uncomfortable and awkward realizing that not only do you feel badly for this person who's sharing these details, but you feel just as badly for the person sitting in the service during the details being related. Of course, no names are shared as a part of this, but everyone just already knows who this person is referencing. And so I came away from that realizing if you're going to have someone speak in front of the church during worship service, make sure you know what they're going to say and how that's going to play out.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. We've learned that recently for the testimony is to make sure we hear in advance. In fact, for those who are nervous, we actually give them, like, a dress rehearsal... Not a full dress rehearsal, but we give them a rehearsal in advance. Tell me the whole story, then we give them a little, Take this, then take this out. I know there's a lot of churches that are a lot more freewheeling than that, but that's where our fun stories come from, I guess. All right. So much good stuff. How can people find you online if they need to follow up on anything, Matt?
Matt Branaugh: Churchlawandtax.com is our main website. We also have an online store that carries our print and digital resources. That's churchlawandtaxstore.com. You can also go, when you go to the website, there's material available that's free. There's a lot of material that you have to be a member to access, but you can also sign up for our free e-newsletters. Those are designed to keep you informed and updated and introduce you to the different things that we do. And certainly, of course, we hope that if you're not already a member, you'll at some point consider becoming one.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, I fully encourage all our listeners to do that. I regularly unsubscribe to all kinds of email lists that I found myself on for reasons that I don't know how I got on them. So there may be, I think there's less than half a dozen that I have remained subscribed to and Church Law and Tax is one of them. Just there's so much information, it is so relevant to what happens. You can guarantee that if a church or tax issue comes up that relates to the church... That if a law or tax issue that relates to the church comes up, they will be among the first out there with it and their information will be credible and helpful every single time.
So Matt, thank you so much for the work you do and for being with us today.
Matt Branaugh: Well, Pastor Karl, thank you for the opportunity. We love the church. We love small churches. I'm a small church guy, myself. It's a real privilege to be with you and to have the opportunity to speak with your audience and just know that we're in your corner, we're rooting for you all.
Karl Vaters: Thank you.
So I hope that what we did in this talk helped you in a couple of ways. First, I hope that it showed you that you are not alone in the kinds of issues that you face. And secondly, I hope you can now see that there is help out there if you do get into any kind of challenges, including help for how to prevent any of these things from happening to you, or at least reduce the likelihood of it happening.
So can this work in a small church? Is there a way to be sure that we're doing things well and protecting people, the church and yourself on tax, legal and financial issues without breaking the bank? Yes, it is possible if we do a handful of things well. First of all, these two things: Be proactive. Don't wait for something bad to happen. Don't imagine that it just can't happen in your church. Put preventative measures in place to reduce the likelihood that they will ever happen, to try to reduce the likelihood that people will get hurt or that your church will get damaged in the process.
And secondly, if something does go wrong, Don't delay in acting quickly. First of all, to protect those who have been hurt. That has always got to be priority number one. And then secondly, make sure that you're acting in a way after that, that won't cause any further damage to them, to the church or to yourself. Reach out for help. It is available.
If you'd like to become a Patreon partner for as little as $3 a month and help put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most, check out our Patreon link in the show notes. Do you want a transcript of this episode? It will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at Christianitytoday.com/KarlVaters. You can find the link in the show notes. This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver. Original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of Jackwilkinsmusic.com. The podcast logo was created by Solomon Joy of joyetic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.
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