Suppose you’re a pastor on staff at a church. Or a reporter for your hometown newspaper. Or you’re employed by a Christian ministry. Or volunteer at a neighborhood agency. And suppose you spend time writing stuff for your church, employer, ministry, or agency.
When you do, who owns what you write?
Maybe you’ve never had to ask that question; but if you’re a writer, maybe you should. If you and your company or church haven’t already thought through issues of intellectual property, you probably should. The day may come when the ownership of something you write becomes an issue.
Years ago, when I was on staff at a Christian ministry’s magazine, the understanding was that all writing I produced—even if it was after work hours, at home, on my own computer—was the property of the ministry. That may sound extreme, but I never challenged it.
Many years later, after I had written numerous books and articles as a full-time writer, I was asked to take a paid pastoral position on the staff of the fast-growing church my wife and I helped to plant. I accepted and began carefully dividing my time between my ministry as an author and speaker and my ministry as a pastor and preacher. I knew the issue of intellectual property would arise sooner or later, so I asked our church’s leadership team to adopt a policy, not only to clarify matters for me but also for other staff and volunteers. It wasn’t perfect, by any means; but here’s the policy as it was adopted at that time:
[Church Name] policy seeks to encourage creativity while conserving the resources and protecting the interests of the church. Therefore, intellectual property of a scholarly or artistic nature (such as sermons and music) shall be the sole property of the creator unless a specific contract with alternative provisions has been negotiated prior to the creation of the property. However, any works so created within the scope of a staff member’s paid employment may (in their original form) be used, reproduced, and sold by [Church Name] without further compensation to the employee unless a specific contract with alternative provisions is agreed to by both the employee and the church. All such contracts as mentioned in this paragraph must be approved by the [Church Name] Leadership Team.
So, in practical terms, when I wrote a sermon to preach at church, the written words belonged to me; but the recordings of my sermons were the church’s property. The same would apply, say, to a song composed by the worship pastor or a play created by a staff member for the church to perform.
Other churches and businesses tackle the issue differently—for example, making the origination of the intellectual property the determining factor. (That is, if my editor assigns me a story to write, it belongs to the company. But if I take the initiative and write a story and offer it to the company, it belongs to me.)
You may think that it’s no big deal in your situation, and you’d be right—until it is. (Steve Laube knows of a case where a former pastor sued his previous church over this issue.) So, it’s best not to wait until it becomes a big deal. Clarify and codify intellectual-property decisions before they become an issue; and you’ll do yourself and your church, employer, ministry, or agency a valuable service.
For more details, see this helpful article from the Church Law and Tax site: