New business (and thus church) organization laws in the District of Columbia

I think the District of Columbia got new business organization laws yesterday. The I think is because of our Home Rule charter, which requires a congressional review period, which is based on the uncertainty of projecting out legislative days. But the new Title 29 was scheduled to become law yesterday.

Based on the Uniform Law Commission recommended acts, the new D.C. code is promised to make us up-to-date and organized and endlessly blissful. Fine. All I care about (for this blog) is the unincorporated nonprofit organization provisions, which I’ve written about several times.

Why, and why for churches? Because our practical polity — the votes, and reports and Board of Trustees part that we associate with “how churches run” — is a legacy of the law, not our theological understanding of how churches should work. We in the United States churches are heirs to a complex set of customs, laws and structures that having grown so complex have been simplified to be manageable and then hallowed with age. Historically, what is “in trust” for the trustees? The building or other assets, and the trustees were apart but related to the congregation. But then the laws changed to allow churches to incorporate in their own name. But why incorporation? Because it protects the property and officers. (Indeed, why pledge? Because the old pew owner system was unfair and — I bet – unreliable.)

But with new laws come new opportunities, if we can make use of them. The unincorporated nonprofits under this law don’t need incorporation to protect the property or officers or members. And without incorporation, no corporate structures. A small congregational church can — should it so wish — operate as a direct democracy. Or the trustees can be retired and offices  like the diaconate — once more practical than spiritual —  can take their former place. And it comes with the hope of easier administration, or at least administration that fits the theology. (A question for Unitarian Universalists: how does your incorporation fit with your church covenant? I bet “not at all.”)

But it’s not an option for many, so far. The revised uniform act (one that’s meaningfully fleshed out for my comfort) is only the law in Arkansas, Iowa, Nevada and now — I suppose — D.C.

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