Do you own that? Ethical considerations for church workers

“Make sure you know who owns what.” 

I remember Bob MacRae, my undergrad advisor, telling that to a class full of youth ministry majors about the stuff that you acquire and produce as part of your job.

This brought up ethical questions like:

  • If you buy a book from your youth ministry budget, does it belong to you or the church?
  • If you buy decorations for your office with a church allotment, is that yours or does it belong to the church?
  • If you write a book while on staff based on your experiences at your church, about your ministry, or even church equipment/time… does that income go to you or the church?
  • What about if you speak at a camp or conference?
  • What about your talks, the media you create, the materials you produce?

Who owns that stuff?

I find there are three probabilities about these questions for most people in youth ministry:

  1. On rare occasions, an employment contract or employee policy stipulates the answers to these questions.
  2. It’s never been talked about, no one really knows or seems to care, and the staff kind of operates in an ad hoc fashion, copying what another person on the team has done.
  3. It has been talked about but never been put in writing. And it seems like one set of rules applies to the senior pastor and another set of rule applies to everyone else.

Something on the side

A few years back I had lunch with the head of a big marketing company. This is a guy who works with a lot of churches but isn’t really a church person. He asked, “I’ve noticed that nearly every pastor has a side business, why is that?

In truth, I’d never thought about it, but it’s absolutely true. Whether it’s a business outside of ministry, a speaking ministry, or a blog… lots and lots of church workers have side income. 

Why is that? If I had to guess, it’s based in two pressing and unspoken realities for all church workers.

First, they are underpaid for long-term careers. A driving force for creating/owning YMX was that it provided a few thousand extra dollars in income that I legitimately needed just to keep up with inflation. Second, job insecurity is a real thing in every church role. There isn’t a pastor in America who can say they know with absolute certainty that they’ll have a job in ministry in August 2014. Every single person can get run out of their church… quickly. Having something on the side is simply wise.

Stuff to Know

Physical goods

(things like books, conference registration, computer peripherals, stuff like that)

When it comes to physical goods, you need to know the difference between stuff that belongs to your church and stuff that’s an employee benefit.  So if you have a book allowance… that’s usually seen as an employee benefit. Things you purchase with your book allowance belong to you and are also taxable to you as income. (The same would be true of continuing education monies.) But if you buy a book out of your youth budget, even if you are the only one who reads it, it usually belongs to the church and you’ll need to ask if you can have it.

Intellectual Property

  • Your employment status really matters when it comes to intellectual property.
  • If you are a church employee… any intellectual property you produce at work or in the course of your duties automatically belongs to the church unless explicitly outlined otherwise. Every email, every lesson, every graphic, everything that you create in the course of your job belongs to the church because you’ve already been paid for it and they paid you to create it. Even if they don’t do anything with it or seem to care. It belongs to them. You could say you wrote it but they hold the copyright because they paid you to create it. So if you want to sell it later, you’ll need to ask permission or license it from them. If I were the church, I’d like you to sell that with the church name listed as the publisher, the income coming to the church, and your portion of the proceeds paid to you either in the course of your regular payroll or by way of a bonus. But to do all of this without asking permission or licensing it would be unethical, typically in violation of any distribution agreement you’d have to sign to sell it or publish it.
  • If you are an independent contractor… intellectual property/lessons/sermons/materials that you create for the course of your work at the church should belong to you unless otherwise stipulated in a contract. (Technically, if you are an independent contractor… and a lot of pastors are seen as such in the eyes of the IRS… you are not a church employee. You are self-employed and church is a client. That’s why you get a 1099 and pay your own taxes.) The way I understand it, the things you produce for your client… the church… the copyright belongs to you but you are “licensing” it for use at the church. The questions are… is that license exclusive to the church? What is the duration of that license? And is the license for a one-time use?
  • Where it gets sticky is when a team works on a project. So let’s say you create a sermon series that is preached at church. But your intention is to repackage that sermon series as a curriculum series. If the staff graphic artists creates artwork for the series, can you use it? If your administrative assistant does research for the series and contributes application questions, can you use them? If you produce some videos with church equipment, can you use them? No. Not without permission. As an independent contractor, by default, you only own your portion of the work.

Stop Assuming

The biggest problem I see is that most church workers (employees and independent contractors alike) tend to assume they can do whatever they want instead of having a conversation or helping their ministry develop a written policy.

In reality, you might go your entire career without this coming up. And, generally speaking, this stuff is so little extra income that it’ll likely never come up.

But if/when it does come up… because you’ve operated for a while under an assumption, well, you’ll feel like a victim when a church tells you that your assumption was not their assumption.

The fact that “who owns what” hasn’t yet come up for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be clear. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the conversation. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put it in writing.

Ethical Considerations

You need to know who owns what before it comes up!

Ethics are a part of being a professional in any field.

And, call me naive, but I’d like to think that the church should lead the way when it comes to workplace ethics.


14 responses to “Do you own that? Ethical considerations for church workers”

  1. Aaron Avatar

    This is one of those things where it doesn’t matter until it does… The law is very clear on this even if you and/or your church blur the lines. Usually, it won’t matter, but when it does most guys I know will come up on the losing end of because they didn’t follow the law. Even if the church gives you a book you bought with a youth budget you are supposed to claim it on your taxes. If you don’t and you get dinged by the IRS you are responsible. If you produce it on church time and you never had the conversation, it belongs solely to the church. If the church goes after your income you received from the sale of stuff you created on their time you are responsible to pay it. If you are afraid to have the conversation about ownership, that should put up a red flag. Don’t be deceptive, follow the law and you will stay out of trouble, legally speaking.

  2. Mike Avatar

    I am looking at walking into a new situation in the near future. Would you suggest some sort of legally binding contract about physical property, intellectual property…heck even severance compensation? (Lawyer drawn up)

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      @mike – I think these are perfect things to include in an employment contract. It doesn’t have to be a big, drawn out thing. But a paragraph or two in your employment contract could cover that. Personally, I wouldn’t accept a job without a contract.

  3. Greg Boulden Avatar


    Curious to your thoughts. I wrote my own Confirmation program and instituted it this year at my church. Under what you wrote, I lose my intellectual property to the church. However, I created this program outside my work hours. Idea is to expand to more parishes. Who’s property is it then?

    Also, if my contract is not renewed, but I continue working without a contract, would this change things? I’ve been at my current position for a year without a contract…


    Dir. Youth Ministry

  4. adam mclane Avatar

    There are two separate questions, just want to make sure not to confuse them.

    1. If you are a salaried, regular employee, and there wasn’t a conversation about the development of this being wholly yours… I think you’d really need to seek some clarification with the understanding that you probably should have had the conversation before starting the project. I think if you had documentation that you did all of the work on your own time with your own equipment, etc… you could probably argue that it’s yours. But you’d be better off having a conversation with your church about it than assuming anything. If you were my employee and you did it at home for work, I just don’t know how that’d be any different than another work-from-home situation. You know?

    2. The employment contract question is probably governed by a state employment law. Most church employment contracts I’ve signed weren’t for a max term, but guaranteed the first year or so. At least in the states I’ve worked in, an employment contract typically continues until it either expires (meaning termination) or one of the parties alters it.

    If you know an employment attorney, it might be worth buying him lunch to see if you can pick his brain. But also bear in mind that is what he/she does for a living… so it might be worth $300 for a consultation.

  5. Aaron Avatar

    I was told by a lawyer that your church leadership could put it in writing granting you rights to all of the content you create and it would be binding. We are doing this for sermons and stuff now. It can be retroactive, meaning that they can give you everything you created from the time of your employment.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      This is good input. Most important part of that… get it in writing!

  6. Rachel Blom Avatar

    Great post Adam! I did have an intellectual property clause put into my contract when I was a youth pastor. Obviously, the laws are a bit different in The Netherlands, but I wanted to make sure I kept the copyright to all materials I had developed, even after leaving the church. That turned out to be a really smart move. I also made my ‘book stipend’ legal, meaning that all the books I bought with this stipend were legally mine and not the church. Anything else I bought with the church’s budget belonged to the church. It is so important to have this sorted and legally taken care of so you avoid confusion and conflict, especially when you leave!

  7. nstarksen Avatar

    This is great stuff. Stuff I likely would not have considered. It will definitely make me think when it comes to intellectual property.

    But I have a scenario concerning “physical” property with muddied waters. The main areas where youth workers often buy physical property (that I can think of) are books, music, and movies. But our world is shifting to be digitally based. So while church budget pays for these things, it often makes more sense to get them on your personal kindle or computer. When employment ends, the church owns these things but you are likely keeping them.

    This question has come up a few times for me. I will want to buy music for background music at youth group, but I use my personally computer for this.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      @nstarksen That’s muddy and not muddy at the same time. You can’t confuse convenience with “who owns that.” A digital product has a license that’s attributed to the purchaser. You really should have stuff that is your personal music/software/books associated with your personal ID. (amazon, , Adobe ID, iTunes, etc.) And stuff that’s purchased for work purposes needs to be on it’s own ID associated with your work.

      Just because you are putting licensed stuff on your personal device doesn’t mean it’s yours. That’s why many companies just draw a line, there’s work devices and personal devices.

      It is worthy of a conversation among your church about who owns what… that’s the point of the whole post. 🙂

      1. nstarksen Avatar

        Agreed. I just brought it up because it wasn’t in the original post. Personally I have had conversations, but wanted to bring it up for others as well.

  8. Michelle Avatar

    What if you create something as a volunteer and not an employee? How does that work

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      If you didn’t get paid for it I can’t see how anyone would own it but you.

  9. Faye Hatch Avatar
    Faye Hatch

    What if it’s not part of your job description? Like, say a worship leader is hired to lead a worship team but not necessarily write music. Inadvertently they end up writing music that is sung in the church but it wasn’t part of the job scope. How would IP rights pertain to that?

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