ministry nuts and bolts: What does the pastor need to know about the law?

Photo by Pixabay on

Guest Post from Richard Pennington

I’m grateful to Dave Williams for letting me contribute to his series of articles about ministry nuts and bolts, although this a a very general note as the detail would run to too many pages!

I write as a retired solicitor and I dealt in my career of over 30 years as a partner in a law firm with many contentious and non contentious litmatters concerning trusts and charities and I have also had active experience as a trustee of many charities and churches and I’m an elder in my own church ; Hope Evangelical Church in Snettisham which is an FIEC church of which I am also a Trustee.

The Key thing to start with are the legal documents which set out matters about the nature and status of his employment including housing and pension,trusts buildings constitutions etc . If about to be-appointed then any prospective pastor should ensure that the position is made very clear to him before he starts!

If he is to be a trustee of the charitable trust or CIO then this carries with it serious legal obligations which apply to a small charity in the same way. There is no diminution of duty because the charity or church is small.

My view is that the Pastor himself may want his own advice about matters before he starts, particularly if there has been a somewhat chequered previous history

Assuming (!)  that all is straightforward and in order with a history of well regulated practice then the main legal issues which will arise relate to safeguarding, employment, as well as any issues around housing or tenancies of property etc

A proper approach and policy on Safeguarding is essential, and making sure this is properly set up and reviewed is a priority.As churches we should be in the vanguard of protecting the vulnerable and bringing abusers to account.

Depending on the polity of the church there will need to be found folk who have the time and ability to ensure that legal requirements are met and there is a clear paperwork trail based upon policies which are regularly reviewed. Here there should also be no compunction in getting external legal advice from eg Edward Connor the independent firm of solicitors set up by the FIEC for their and other churches,  since as trustees personal liability can flow if decisions are made without expert help if needed.

Churches often have a DIY  mindset which can hinder best decision making. Most of us for example outsource our childrens’ schooling to schools ; why should we try to muddle through in areas we have little competency in? The charity commission itself has lots of very useful info and templates for policies.

The incidence of Covid and the ensuing regulations has provided pastors with many issues of a theological nature to consider but also legal ones. What are churches or charities required to do under legislation .How do we  interpret these? Again my church depended on both the FIEC and info from the Baptist Union which enabled us to do the necessary risk assessments.

In some contexts pastors may be asked to give evidence in court , particularly in immigration or asylum appeals.My view is that he should be careful in doing so and only give evidence as to what he knows. If an asylum seeker is claiming conversion as a reason not to be sent back say to Afghanistan, the pastor should be careful to say on what basis he assesses this has occurred with reference to observable events . A church with a clear polity on membership baptism and communion is in a better position to do so rather than a church which can seem to have a ‘if you’re warm you’re in’ approach.

Proposed laws on conversion therapy, and other issues arising from identity and gender may give rise to the need for legal input but that would be a much more detailed note following enactment of legislation which is still not  yet even published!

 Richard Pennington

 retired solicitor


Watch out for some articles looking specifically at employment, safeguarding and asylum.

Resources helpful to church leaders wanting a bit more insight into the law and their legal obligations include:

The Charity Commission

The Christian Legal Centre -lawyers seeking to represent churches, pastors and evangelists on matters relating to freedom of religion

Edward Connor – a Christian Law Firm linked to the FIEC

%d bloggers like this: