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.
- 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.
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.