“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:
- On rare occasions, an employment contract or employee policy stipulates the answers to these questions.
- 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.
- 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
(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.
- 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.
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.
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.