By Doug Talley
I was working with a church to help them address some issues and needed to read their bylaws to help them move forward appropriately. As I read them, I came across a section that said one of the responsibilities of the board was to protect the church’s assets by safeguarding them for the Church of God. I have never read something like that in a church’s bylaws before. While I’m not so sure that needed to be in the bylaws, I liked the intent – which was to make sure that the church and its properties were protected from being taken over by a person or a group of persons not committed to the Church of God.
My roots in the Church of God go deep. I know there are other tribes that do great Kingdom work, and I realize Church of God folk will not be the only ones in heaven. I also deeply love the Church of God. It has played a significant role in shaping me as a person, husband, father, churchman, and Christ follower. I want to see the Church of God thrive as a Kingdom force.
Here’s my story. Two sets of my great grandparents were part of a local Church of God congregation in Penton, Alabama. The church started at the end of the 1800s and continues to this day. Both of my paternal grandparents and my dad also grew up in that same church. (My grandparents actually eloped between Sunday School and worship on Christmas Day 1923.) I was there frequently enough that I knew most of the people in it, and they all knew Brady and Sarah’s rambunctious grandson. That’s how deep my roots go in the Church of God.
I watched my grandparents give themselves and their money to that church until they both passed away while in their 80’s. (My dad’s first job as a teenager – probably the mid 1940s – was helping lay the bricks when the primary building was constructed. He made $ .25 an hour.) During my growing up years, I also noted that my parents gave at a significant level when my home church in Atlanta, GA, relocated or expanded the facility or relocated again.
My paternal ancestors all deeply loved and treasured the Church of God. I know they would want their financial sacrifice and generosity for their local congregations respected by making sure those church properties were safeguarded for the Church of God (rather than put at risk of being taken over by another group). They gave to expand the Kingdom through the Church of God. I think this is one reason why that Indiana church’s bylaws reference to safeguarding the properties for the Church of God stood out so boldly to me. I understood the sacrifices the founders and members of the church have made and why they wanted to protect their Kingdom investment.
Did you know that it is relatively easy for a group of persons to legally take over the ownership of a Church of God congregation’s property? In many church groups a local congregation’s properties are owned by the denomination even though the people in the local congregation paid the mortgage. This legally protects the assets from being taken over by person’s from another group or by a devious person looking for personal advantage.
However, in an autonomous, congregationally governed movement like the Church of God, local congregations own their own properties. Though that is a good thing, it also exposes the local church to certain risks, such as a take over (steeple jacking) by another group. All that is required to legally take over a Church of God facility is for a group of people to worship with a local congregation for at least six months (that is usually what bylaws in our tribe stipulate), and thus qualify as a voting member. When this group numbers 51% of the voting members, a legal takeover can occur. “But that would never happen to our church.” Many Church of God people have said that only to discover that it DID happen to them.
Here is an all too common scenario: A takeover usually happens slowly. People begin worshipping with a Church of God congregation and, for whatever reason, never learn to appreciate the Church of God heritage. The church runs into hard times and struggles to survive. It decreases in size and becomes small enough that a handful of people are in control of its properties and assets. The strongest personality(s) remaining, who may not have any commitment to the Church of God, begin making the decisions. The decision is made to close, and the facility has to be sold or given away. (Legally, individuals cannot personally profit from the sale of a church.) The decision is made to give the properties to some other entity – maybe another church group (not Church of God affiliated) or a religious ministry or even a not-for-profit enterprise (like the Humane Society). What was paid for by people investing in expanding the Kingdom through the Church of God has now become lost to the Church of God. Instead of the property being sold and the proceeds being used to plant a new Church of God congregation, for example, the assets were used for other purposes. Imagine how those who gave sacrificially and generously to build that Church of God congregation would feel if they knew that.
As a state pastor for the last 13+ years I’ve seen some pretty bizarre situations involving Church of God properties being hijacked by a person or group of people. Sometimes the scenarios are more sinister than the one I previously described. I am amazed what some people will do under the cloak of religion. No one expects it to happen to their church, but it happens.
These kinds of takeovers were happening as long ago as 1923. Dr. F. G. Smith, editor of the Gospel Trumpet, sought the advice of an attorney for a legal method to safeguard church property for the use of the Church of God but would still allow local congregations to own their properties. Conditional deeding was the solution.
This means on the condition that one or more persons try to hijack a Church of God congregation’s property, theology or affiliation, then another group (such as Indiana Ministries of the Church of God) can be legally empowered to protect the church. Please know that this does not mean that Indiana Ministries, for example, takes the properties over, owns the properties, or controls them. It does mean that Indiana Ministries can protect the properties for the Church of God. And if for some reason, God forbid, the church chooses to close, then those funds can be used to further the work of the Church of God – most likely through church multiplication. In this way, a church that closes leaves a legacy.
This is exactly what the Church of God in Munster, Indiana, did when it closed. The property was given to Indiana Ministries and sold to fund Momentum Church in NW Indiana. Momentum Church owes so much to the foresight and investment of the leaders of the Munster Church.
For more information on how to safeguard your congregation’s properties, contact Indiana Ministries. Jeff, Jenene or I would be happy to meet with your board and/or church to explain its importance, answer questions, and walk you through the process. You might want to begin by emailing Jenene Lighty (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a packet of information about conditional deeding.
Also, if your congregation’s properties were conditionally deeded to the now defunct Board of Church Extension (a common process to provide protection when taking out a loan with BCE), then you need to contact us immediately to complete the necessary paperwork to update your protection since the BCE no longer exists. You can determine if your church properties are conditionally deeded to BCE by going to where deeds are recorded in your county (courthouse or some other county office) and checking the deed. A ruling by the federal courts stresses the urgency of affected congregations addressing this concern.
Please, let us help you protect your congregation.