Updated November 9, 2020:

Wondering how to start a church in California? The process is similar to starting a charitable organization, which requires the completion and filing of certain paperwork.

A church is a community of individuals that share spiritual beliefs and come together to worship and fellowship. The IRS published the Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, which includes an outline of the characteristics that define a church:

  • A recognized form of worship and creed
  • Distinct and separate legal existence
  • Its own literature
  • Distinct religious history
  • Organization of ministers who are selected/ordained and have completed set study courses
  • Established locations for worship
  • Regular congregations who attend the services
  • Regular services hosted for religious worship and fellowship
  • Distinct and definite ecclesiastical government
  • Schools that offer religious instruction of the congregation's youth
  • Formal doctrinal and disciplinary code
  • Schools that prepare their ministers
  • Membership that is not associated with other denominations or churches

How to Start a Church: Beginning Fellowship

One of the early steps required to start a church in California is drafting the statement of belief and church bylaws. The church's bylaws will describe its purpose, as well as how it will be governed in ethical, financial, and legal affairs.

After completing its bylaws and statement of belief, the church founders must go through the process of incorporation. This process ends with the receipt of a certificate of formation, which approves the church to operate in the state of California. Upon receipt of this certificate, the majority of its board of directors or the incorporator must call for a meeting of the organization.

Naming the Church

One of the more commonly overlooked steps in the process of starting a church is coming up with a name. As you consider different name options, think about ways to make it descriptive, unique, and distinctive. The name you choose should also describe how your church will contribute to its niche within the ministry.

Before you start sharing the name you select, you will need to receive approval. You will submit the name as part of the filing process with the Secretary of State. It's important to review existing business names in the state to make sure the name you want isn't already registered to another organization or church. If you want to reserve the church name before you submit the registration paperwork, use the Name Reservation Request form, which will hold the name for 60 days.

What You Need to Start a Church

As you continue to work on the business plan for your church, consider these aspects:

  • Financial aims of the church, including how much money is needed and how funds will be collected
  • Potential members, with a reasonable expectation of the congregation numbers
  • Time commitment – full-time vs. part-time
  • Location of the church where members of the congregation can worship

Another step in starting any type of religious organization is coming up with the bylaws that will govern it. To incorporate in the state of California, you will need a membership, a board of directors, and officers. These individuals must understand their responsibilities and duties, which include:

  • Acting in the best interests of the organization and its members
  • Providing oversight over legal compliance, officers, finances, and activities
  • Acting with reasonable care

How to Start a Church: Forming a Nonprofit

After you have incorporated, you will need to apply to become a nonprofit organization. This part of the process requires several steps, the first of which is preparing the certificate of formation. In some states, this document is referred to as the articles of incorporation, but it is used to organize the church you plan to start.

Next, fill out the IRS form 1023 online or mail a completed hard copy to the address listed on the form. This form will start the process to get your organization approved as a tax-exempt entity. Your church also needs an employer identification number (EIN), which can be obtained by filling out IRS Form SS4. Another form you'll need to submit is Form 3500, which you will submit to the California Franchise Tax Board. This document is the application to become exempt from state corporation franchise tax in California.

If you need help with how to start a church in California, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.