ABP reported Feb. 11 a bit of good news in the ongoing struggle to maintain healthy boundaries between church and state: a special panel has recommended to President Obama that churches wanting to receive federal funding for social ministries should set up a separate non-profit corporation to handle those funds.
That makes perfect sense, both from a stewardship perspective and from a first amendment perspective. On the stewardship end, it’s both smart and accountable to keep money from different sources completely separate — and not just in different line items of the same budget.
From the first amendment angle, it’s axiomatic that tax-payer funding has no place in church coffers. Mixing money doesn’t necessarily imply wrongdoing, but it’s a bad approach in principle. It opens a big can of ugly worms that range from influence peddling to political payoffs and (no doubt) lots of things I haven’t thought of.
Critics who complain that creating a separate 501(c)3 corporation creates an unnecessary stumbling block and makes it harder for churches to get money are reaching for excuses. Getting recognition as a 501(c)3 is neither difficult nor expensive. And, having separate organizational governance simply makes it easier to keep things on the up and up: it’s the responsible thing to do.
Given what seems to be a clearly superior rationale for the creation of separate non-profit organizations, it’s surprising that the panel was divided on the issue, voting by a narrow 13-12 margin to endorse the recommendation. The full article is worth reading.
On the whole, I think non-profit ministries are most successful when they’re fully led and fully funded by the same people who have the vision for a ministry, whether they’re leading it or supporting it. Getting government assistance for social ministries is not the ideal. To be acceptable at all, public funding should be handled transparently — and by someone other than church officials.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.