The idea that a pastor can sell a church suggests that pastors own the churches they minister at or that they have the authority to sell the church. But this is not the case in a majority of denominations.
That said, there are some situations where the pastor owns the church and probably has the authority to sell it.
What You'll Learn Today
Does The Church Belong To The Pastor?
When we talk about the church, there are two possible meanings. The most important one is the church as the Body of Christ.
In this capacity, the church definitely doesn’t belong to the pastor, or anyone else for that matter. The church belongs to Jesus; pastors are just its stewards.
Matthew 16:18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Church can also refer to the physical building. This is where property disputes among congregants and church leadership often arise.
In most cases, churches do not belong to pastors. Pastors are generally appointed by a higher authority such as a bishop, the church conference or a diocese to head a particular church.
The pastor has no ownership at all over the church, and therefore cannot sell the church.
Usually, the church property belongs to a church organization such as the parish, the diocese or the national conference.
For example, in the Catholic Church, the parish typically has ownership of its properties including the church, the land it’s built on and other assets like schools and hospitals. This is even confirmed in the Code of Canon Law (1256).
Under the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff, ownership of goods belongs to that juridic person which has acquired them legitimately.
Ownership of the church depends on how a particular denomination is set up and in which country it is located.
Some denominations are highly centralized and all churches belong to a central authority such as a trustee or a civil corporation set up by the church.
A good example of this is the Methodist Church of Britain. All church property is owned by a legal entity called Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes.
Other denominations such as the Catholic Church have a decentralized system when it comes to property ownership. Individual churches or dioceses have legal ownership over the church.
There are numerous denominations around the world, each with their own rules and bylaws. Check the rules of a particular denomination regarding church and property ownership.
What you’ll likely find is that the pastor does not own the church. Instead, the church will be in the care of an organization or a legal entity.
And even in denominations where the pastor can sell the church, they need permission from a higher authority such as a council or board of directors to proceed with the sale.
Things can get complicated when it comes to determining who actually owns the church. This usually happens when churches split from a denomination or when a church sells property.
The fight over who owns the property or gets money from the sale has ended up in court many times.
Because independent churches don’t have any central authority, individual churches or parishes usually own their property.
The title deed can be in the name of the church or a legal entity such as a trust, a non-profit organization or corporation set up specifically for ownership of church property.
There are also independent churches where the pastor is the legal owner of the church. This usually happens when an individual opens a church and invites other congregants.
As with denominational churches, the specifics of church ownership vary widely from church to church. You’d have to study the rules or constitution of a particular church to figure out who owns it.
Churches In Rental Spaces
In some cases, neither the church nor any entity associated with the church owns the church property. Instead, they rent out a space such as a hall or a movie theater to hold their services.
This usually happens with independent churches but you can also find it in some denominational churches.
In such cases, neither the pastor nor the church itself can sell that property since they are just renting it. The landlord has full control of the property.
Can A Pastor Sell A Church?
As we’ve seen above, pastors usually don’t own churches. So it’s highly unusual to find a church, especially a denominational one, where the pastor can sell a church.
Remember that pastors are usually assigned to parishes or churches to minister. Think of it like a chain restaurant hiring a manager to head up a particular branch.
Sure, the manager will oversee finances and other day to day operations. But they don’t own that branch and cannot sell it.
Pastors are usually involved in the church’s finances and may be part of the board or council that makes a decision on whether to sell the church. But on their own, pastors generally cannot sell a church.
This is often the responsibility of the entity that legally owns the church. In some denominations, this is the parish, in others it is the diocese, and in others it’s a corporation or trust.
In independent churches where the pastor legally owns the church, they probably can sell it though they may need permission or a vote from the congregation, elders or the church board.
Who Owns Church Hospitals & Schools?
Many major churches also own and run hospitals, schools, rental property and other assets. Who legally owns these properties and who has the authority to sell them?
The rules of a particular church or denomination regarding church ownership also extends to other church properties and assets.
In the Catholic Church, each parish is its own legal entity. The parish has legal ownership over the church as well as any property acquired by the parish such as a hospital or clinic.
The parish also has the authority to sell and benefit from these assets.
In denominations where there is a central trust or corporation that owns church properties, this ownership usually extends to all other properties owned by the church.
There are always exceptions and you might come across churches where the rules are a bit different or vague.
Who Gets The Money When A Church or Church Property Is Sold?
When church property gets sold, whether it’s the church itself or some other asset like a hospital, the money belongs to the entity that has ownership over the hospital.
That means that in most churches, the money from a church sale doesn’t go to the pastor. Instead, it belongs to the entire church or parish, the diocese or a trust.
If the money goes to a central authority like a diocese or trust, there are usually rules about how the money is distributed to various churches.
If the money goes to a trust or parish that owns the property, then it is the responsibility of church leadership (usually the elders and pastor, a board of trustees or a council from the congregation) to oversee how the money is spent.
Reasons For Selling A Church
You may be wondering why a church needs to be sold in the first place. There are many reasons why churches go on the market. Here are some of the most common.
- The congregation has dwindled to the point that the church can no longer support itself financially. This is actually a trend that’s hitting many churches across the United States.
- A church can be sold to change its legal ownership. For example, a church can be sold to a non-profit (typically created by members of the church), which then rents out the building to the church. This usually happens when the church experiences financial difficulties.
- Churches can be forced to sell their property as part of a legal order or to come up with money for legal settlements. This has happened with Catholic churches.
- If a particular church decides to split from a denomination (as has happened with many Methodist churches in the US), they may decide to buy their own parish from the central entity that owns it.
Issues of church ownership can be tricky and complicated, especially when they end up in court. But generally, pastors do not own churches and cannot sell a church.