RELIGION
08/17/2015 07:02 pm ET

It's Surprisingly Easy To Start Your Own Church

If you're hoping to start your own IRS-approved religious organization, look no further than the guidelines below.
You, too, can be the leader of your own church.
Credit: small_frog via Getty Images
You, too, can be the leader of your own church.

The Internal Revenue Service makes rules about churches and religious organizations intentionally vague to respect the religious liberties outlined in the Constitution. But that can allow for some questionable activity on the part of churches and ministers, as comedian John Oliver demonstrated in a recent episode of his show, "Last Week Tonight."

To make his point, Oliver started his very own tax-exempt church and declared himself “megareverend” in the segment below. 

Turns out, it’s actually fairly easy to start your own religious organization. If you're hoping to form your own IRS-approved church, look no further than the guidelines below.

But first, a note from the IRS:

The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held by those professing them and the practices and rites associated with the organization’s belief or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy.

That shouldn't be too hard. The IRS also states that your church must have some combination of the following: 

  • Distinct legal existence (Oliver registered his "church" as a nonprofit corporation in Texas.)
  • Recognized creed and form of worship (For this, Oliver invited his audience to "meditate on the nature of fraudulent churches.") 
  • Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
  • Distinct religious history
  • Formal code of doctrine and discipline
  • Membership not associated with any other church or denomination
  • Established place of worship (In the case of Oliver's church, that's the "Last Week Tonight" studio.)
  • Regular services ("Last Week Tonight" convenes every Sunday.)
  • Ordained, commissioned or licensed ministers
  • Schools for the preparation of its ministers
  • Literature of its own
  • Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young
  • Organized worship 

Meanwhile, in order to be tax-exempt, your church must not:

  • Conduct political lobbying or intervene to win political campaigns
  • Engage in illegal activities
  • Financially benefit any private individual or shareholder

However, that last requirement doesn't include reasonable payments for services rendered, payments that promote tax-exempt purposes or payments made for the fair market value of real or personal property. Some pastors take great liberties with this loophole by asking church members to mail them cash donations, as Oliver demonstrated. Televangelist Creflo Dollar was recently criticized for asking his followers to donate $300 apiece so he could buy a $65 million jet to help him "safely and swiftly share the Good News of the Gospel worldwide." 

All set? Now it's time to:

  • File Form SS-4 to receive an Employer Identification Number
  • Submit IRS Form 1023, otherwise known as the Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
  • Submit your application within 27 months from the end of the month you first formed your church to earn tax-exempt status (and start receiving tax-deductible contributions right away).

And, finally, a note to aspiring ministers (that’s you!):

The IRS defines a “minister” in vague terms. The organization makes reference to members of the clergy who are ordained, commissioned or licensed. But every religion and denomination recognizes clergy differently, and the IRS does little to investigate the validity of religious groups’ practices and beliefs.  

Wages a church or religious institution pays to its ministers for conducting religious services are not subject to Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes. Religious functions include: performing priestly functions, conducting religious worship, and controlling, conducting and maintaining religious organizations that are under the authority of a church or denomination. Income a minister earns in their religious capacity is subject to Self Employed Contributions Act taxes, unless he or she applies for exemption.

If all of that wasn’t easy enough, churches actually are not required by law to file an application for tax exemption. Your church may seek to do so, however, to give members and contributors peace of  mind that their contributions will in fact earn them tax benefits.

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