Starting or Becoming an SDB Church 

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How to Start a Church

Historically, as Seventh Day Baptist people migrated from England westward across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century, and across the American continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they established a chain of churches.  One chain extended from Rhode Island into New York, western New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Colorado, and California.  Another extended from New Jersey into Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Arkansas and Texas.  It is accurate to speak of these groups of churches as “chains” because they were very closely connected.  Seventh Day Baptists migrated in groups, often taking their churches with them, and always remaining in close contact, both individually and as a group, with the people left behind.  

 In the twentieth century cities have become the frontier, and Seventh Day Baptists have moved individually and as single families, rather than as groups.  Some Seventh Day Baptist churches have been alert to their responsibility to offer help to Seventh Day Baptists who have been geographically separated from their home churches, assisting them in their spiritual lives and helping them gather new groups of Sabbathkeepers in their new locations.  When their own members move, churches may wish to commission them to start a new group.  The sending church should maintain contact by correspondence and personal visits.  Pastors are sometimes sent on visitation missions to such members.  It is important that when two or more Seventh Day Baptist families reside in the same area, they come to know each other, seek to offer each other spiritual fellowship, and consider meeting together regularly.  (For assistance in starting new groups and establishing new churches, contact may be made with the Seventh Day Baptist Missionary Society.)


Organizing as a Branch Church

When one or more families have met together for a time and wish to organize into a group, the first step is to seek status as a branch church.  A branch church is a church organization within the structure of another church (the sponsor church) which is already recognized by General Conference.  Members of the branch church must become members of the sponsor church, and finances of the branch church are reported to the sponsor church.  This relationship with the sponsor church provides the branch church with legal status (tax exemption) and standing in the General Conference.  Copies of branch church minutes and financial statements must be filed with the sponsor church, in order for the branch church to function on a non-profit basis.

Pastoral service is the responsibility of the branch church.  This pastoral leadership may be provided by a gifted lay member of the branch church or sponsor church, or by the pastor of the sponsor church.  Branch church organization should be kept as simple as possible.  At the beginning, the only organization needed might be a leader/pastor and a clerk/treasurer.  

A branch church has its relationship to the General Conference through the sponsor church and is listed in the Seventh Day Baptist Yearbook as a branch of the sponsor church.  Such a church looks forward to the time when it has grown strong enough to be organized as an independent Seventh Day Baptist church, recognized by General Conference.


Organizing as an Independent Church with Conference Recognition

After a branch church grows, it normally takes steps to seek recognition as an independent church.  It must have achieved sufficient health and strength to minister as an autonomous and independent church.  In the process of recognizing churches, General Conference uses two criteria of size to determine the potential for stability needed for such recognition.  First, the branch church should have been meeting continually for one year, with an average worship attendance of at least 25, during one of the quarters of that year.  Second, the branch church must have a membership of at least 25 from at least four separate households.  When these and other indications of health and stability are in evidence, a preliminary meeting to consider matters of local church organization and General Conference recognition is recommended.  Members of the sponsor church, as well as other Seventh Day Baptists, may be invited to advise the branch church in pursuing the goal of organization leading to recognition.

At this time, the church will probably wish to make application to the nearest association for membership.  Since each association governs its own procedures, the church can usually apply for membership at the next association meeting, bringing a letter giving any specifics about the church that may be required by the association.  If, as a branch church, the church has previously been known by other churches in the association, its membership request is usually handled quickly and favorably.

If a church springs up from a new movement of individuals into an area, or results from a whole group from another denomination coming to share the polity and beliefs of Seventh Day Baptists, the association may wish to delay acceptance of the application for membership until ties of fellowship and mutual understanding have been established and strengthened.  The General Conference asks that a church applying for Conference membership be sponsored by a member church and meet certain minimum standards.  One of these is that the church have been in existence for at least a year.  Neither the association nor the General Conference has authority over a local church.  The larger fellowship in each case is for uniting local churches for mutual help and the accomplishment of certain ministries that can best be done together.

In preparation for General Conference recognition, the Executive Secretary should be contacted for guidelines and application forms.  The following items are needed in preparation for membership in the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference:

  1. A statement of factors leading to the church’s organization
  2. A copy of the minutes of the organizational meeting
  3. A list of church officers
  4. A copy of the church’s covenant
  5. A copy of the church’s statement of faith
  6. A copy of the church’s constitution and bylaws
  7. Evidence that Sabbath services have been held regularly for the past year, with a statement that average worship attendance for one quarter was at least twenty-five
  8. A document listing the present membership and showing that the church has the minimum twenty-five members
  9. A letter of recommendation from a member church or association

Preparing a Church Covenant

Seventh Day Baptists are a covenant people.  A covenant is a solemn agreement entered into by a number of people before God.  It is the basic foundation of the local church.  To be without a covenant is to be without a church.  Therefore, the covenant of a Seventh Day Baptist church is a carefully worded document which states the responsibilities of members and their purpose for joining together as a congregation.  Some covenants are written in language reminiscent of earlier days, and some are written in more modern language.  Whatever the style, it is essential that care be taken to make the covenant a meaningful assertion of individual and corporate responsibility to which members may conscientiously subscribe.  For further reference, see Sample Covenants and also Faith & Order Committee Criteria for Evaluating Applications of New Seventh Day Baptist Churches in the Appendix.

In order to serve its purpose in the church, the covenant must be visible, understood and used by the members.  Below are some suggestions offered for accomplishing this:

  1. Exposure—Increase the awareness among the Church members of the existence and content of the Covenant.  Some attach it to the inside cover of a hymnal; others print it on membership cards.  Candidates for Church membership should read and study the Covenant.
  2. Signing – Make sure that every member has signed the Covenant.  Keep a record of the signing.  Applicants for membership should be required to sign the Covenant before being received into membership.
  3. Reading – Public reading of the Covenant together at reception of new members, at Communion service, Church anniversary services, etc., is highly recommended.
  4. Studying – Pastor’s training classes for membership candidates should include a study of the Covenant.  Consider having a series of Sabbath School classes and/or sermons on the Covenant periodically.
  5. Renewal – Some churches ask members to renew the Covenant periodically by reading it together and signing anew.  If you are not satisfied with your present Covenant, get the members together and revise it to the agreement of all.  It can be a uniting experience to talk and restudy the wording of the Covenant.
  6. Reinforcing – The greater the conflict, the greater the love necessary to resolve the conflict.  Admonish one another in the Love of God which constraineth us (John 17:26).

Pastoral service is the responsibility of the branch church.  This pastoral leadership may be provided by a gifted lay member of the branch church or sponsor church, or by the pastor of the sponsor church.  Branch church organization should be kept as simple as possible.  At the beginning, the only organization needed might be a leader/pastor and a clerk/treasurer.  

A branch church has its relationship to the General Conference through the sponsor church and is listed in the Seventh Day Baptist Yearbook as a branch of the sponsor church.  Such a church looks forward to the time when it has grown strong enough to be organized as an independent Seventh Day Baptist church, recognized by General Conference.


Preparing a Statement of Belief

Each local church must develop a statement of belief (some use the denominational statement of belief) in order to be recognized by General Conference.  This statement should accurately describe the essential beliefs of the local church.  It is fine to borrow language from other statements, but the church needs to make sure it really understands and “takes ownership” of the beliefs expressed by the borrowed language.  For further reference, see discussion under the heading, “The Congregation,” in the chapter, A Seventh Day Baptist Church.

    Preparing a Constitution

    A constitution is almost always necessary to a church in meeting legal requirements for incorporation, holding property, maintaining tax-exempt status, and validating the pastor’s status as one legally authorized to perform marriages.  Conference membership guidelines require a church to incorporate under the laws of its state or province.  In addition, the church benefits from having established written procedures which any member may consult, and which guarantee democratic processes in the conduct of the church’s business.  Nonetheless, simplicity is desirable, and a constitution (with its accompanying bylaws) should never be permitted to become cumbersome or oppressive.   Since decisions about the way a church is organized ought to rest in the hands of its people, meeting the needs they have identified, it should not be thought necessary to adhere exactly to any standard forms.  Models can be helpful, but more than one should be consulted, and the church should probably not just adopt even a good model “whole cloth,” without adapting it to local needs.  

    The church’s constitution is not just a necessary evil.  It is the church’s contract with the public.  As a means to legal incorporation, it also protects individual members, in case of a lawsuit.  It is a founding agreement about the organization of the church which briefly describes its purposes, offices, requirements for membership, and regulations for the conduct of business (though the specifics of all of these are treated in the accompanying bylaws).  A new church is well advised to consult with competent outside help in preparing a constitution and bylaws.  The Faith and Order Committee of the denomination may be contacted for advice.  It is the denominational group which gives preliminary evaluation to the documents of churches seeking Conference recognition.


    Preparing Bylaws


    A church’s bylaws contain most of the details of membership, meetings, duties, procedures, and the like.  None of these detailed descriptions of the working of the church’s organization should appear in the constitution.  A very good reason for this to be so, is that the bylaws can be amended quite simply, as small changes are needed from time to time in the way things are done.  But changing the constitution may require re-filing of papers with the state in which the church is incorporated.   

    Bylaws are there for a reason, and should be consulted when unusual situations arise.  They guarantee that the church acts according to the principles to which all have agreed.  For further reference, see Samples of Constitution & Bylaws and also Faith & Order Committee Criteria for Evaluating Applications of New Seventh Day Baptist Churches in the Appendix.

    Disbanding a Church

    When a congregation finds that its ability to survive as an independent church is seriously threatened, and dissolution is imminent, it should take ordered steps to dispose of its property in a responsible manner and formally disband.  That is why it is essential to include provisions for such a state of affairs in the bylaws.  Such matters should be carefully worked out before any emergency arises, and it should be clearly stated how the church is to proceed.  Otherwise the church will merely drift out of existence, its property going into disinterested or unworthy hands, its decay bringing disgrace to the cause it represents when a formal disbanding would have brought honor to the history and accomplishments of the church.  Sometimes it may be desirable to the remaining members of a declining church to continue for a time as a branch church, rather than as an independent church.  In that case, the sponsor church would already be authorized to take action to dissolve the church, if that became necessary. 

    Churches may need to call on the General Conference for advice and assistance in handling the business decisions necessary for disbanding.  Legally, the congregation needs to vote to disband, and the trustees need to take the actions necessary to accomplish this.  If incorporated, the church needs to ensure that its actions are within the laws of the state.  

    A church’s bylaws should be written in such a way as to prevent the situation form arising in which, though the church is no longer functioning, a handful of remaining members (or a single remaining member) refuses to take action to formally dissolve the church.  Without such action, the church’s assets are either no longer available for useful employment in the work of Christ’s Kingdom, or are actually subject to being misused for other purposes (due to the disappearance of the accountability structure provided, formerly, through the regular business meetings of the church).  Including the following provisions in the bylaws will prevent this undesirable situation from developing:

    1. It should be stated that, upon dissolution of the church, the assets shall be transferred to a specific, named organization (such as the Seventh Day Baptist Memorial Fund, General Conference, etc.) which meets the requirements of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It is best to name one or two other organizations as alternatives, in case the designated organization is unwilling or unable to receive the assets by the time the church is dissolved.
    2. Both a percentage of members and a specific number of members should be used in defining a quorum for the transaction of business.  Example:  “A quorum shall consist of five active members or one third of the active membership, whichever is greater.”  This provision ensures that a certain specified minimum of members are necessary to transact business.  One or two people cannot, therefore, constitute a quorum on the basis that they amount to “100%” or “50%” of the membership.
    3. Some such language like the following should be included:  “In the event the church has not been dissolved, but for the period of one year has not held a properly constituted business meeting (at which is present, a quorum of five active members or one third of the active membership, whichever is greater), the church shall be considered dissolved, and the Manager of the Seventh Day Baptist Memorial Fund shall be empowered to distribute its assets in accordance with the provisions for dissolution contained in Article VII of these Articles of Incorporation.”  A variation of the above: “In the event the church has not been dissolved, but has not held public worship services at least once per quarter, for four consecutive quarters of the year, the church shall be considered dissolved…

    Members of a disbanding church should decide how they will now relate as Seventh Day Baptists to another church.  Letters of transfer to another Seventh Day Baptist church should be issued.  Those who live in distant communities may wish to relate to a church closer to their homes.  The Director of Pastoral Services is responsible for helping members of a disbanded church find new church homes.

    Letters should be sent to the association and the General Conference giving notice of the actions taken to disband a church so their records can be updated.  The records of the church should be closed and forwarded to the Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society for safekeeping to be available to future generations as a witness to the life of the church.   

    There may arise an occasion when a member church of the General Conference is displaying conduct which is no longer in harmony with the distinctive faith and practice of Seventh Day Baptists.  After careful research, and upon recommendation of the General Council, the corporation at its General Conference sessions may, by a two-thirds majority vote of the delegates present, remove a church from its membership rolls.