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What is the difference between a church and a ministry when applying for 501(c)(3) status?

Oct 4, 2018 9:00:00 AM / by Adeline Englehart

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In most people’s minds, there is not a significant distinction between a church versus a ministry. Both have religious affiliations. However, when it comes to applying for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, there are clear differences in whether an organization classifies as a church or a ministry in the eyes of the IRS. If you apply as a church then you are required to fill out a longer, more intensive and costly form. Whereas if you apply as a ministry you are eligible to fill out a streamlined and less costly form.

When trying to decide if your organization is a church or a ministry when applying for 501(c)(3) status, there are some key distinguishing factors that you should consider. The following list of activities and qualities, are representative of a church in the eyes of the IRS. If any of the following statements are representative of your organization, you will legally qualify for church status with the IRS.

Church:

  • Distinct legal existence
  • Recognized creed and form of worship
  • Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
  • Formal code of doctrine and discipline
  • Distinct religious history
  • Membership not associated with any other church or denomination
  • Organization of ordained ministers
  • Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study
  • Literature of its own
  • Established places of worship
  • Regular congregations
  • Regular religious services
  • Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young
  • Schools for the preparation of its members

If the majority of the standards above apply to your organization, then you should apply for 501(c)(3) status as a Church using the 1023 form.

Ministry:

The key defining factor that would distinguish your organization as a ministry lies within the organization’s primary purpose. If your organization's primary purpose is to provide community support and outreach (ex: conducting food drives, providing clothes and blankets for the homeless, etc.) while also conducting religious services, then you can be classified by the IRS as a ministry/religious organization. As a ministry/religious organization, you would be eligible to apply for 501(c)(3) status using the the streamlined and less costly 1023EZ form.

Topics: how to start a nonprofit, 501c3, tax exempt status