How Chicago Pastor James Meeks’ Church Stayed Out of Trouble With the IRS While He Ran for Political Office

James Meeks Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times
James Meeks
Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times
How one church navigated the tricky issue of political involvement.

With the 2016 presidential election coming up, many churches and ministry leaders may wonder what they can and cannot do when it comes to politics. Is there a line, and, if so, when do you cross it?

Churches are required to remain impartial toward candidates, yet church leaders tend to invest more in social issues, such as pro-life and same-sex marriage, than the average voter. Clearly the church’s interest in politics isn’t going away anytime soon.

Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, understands the conflicts that can arise between politics and the church firsthand. Their senior pastor, James Meeks, was a former Illinois State Senator from 2003 to 2013 and currently serves as the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. Meeks ran for office in 2002, won, and was re-elected for two additional terms, acting as an advocate for the Roseland community on Chicago’s South Side, all while leading one of the largest African American churches in the city.

Church administrator Veronica Abney has worked at Salem Baptist Church for 20 years and knows how Salem’s ministry was carefully kept from becoming too intermingled with Meeks’s campaigns and political work in order to keep from violating any IRS rules for charitable organizations. She says the key to this is keeping the two—politics and the pulpit—completely separate. “We run our organization pretty much like a corporation,” says Abney. “We’re a megachurch, so therefore you don’t find things that would cause us to be in a compromising position.”

During Meeks’s state Senate campaigns, no one solicited votes through the church, asked for volunteers, or promoted Meeks’s political work on church grounds. People found out about the political initiatives of Meeks’s campaign and state Senate terms from the media. Candidates were not invited to speak at Salem Baptist Church during campaign seasons and would not have been allowed to share their views unless all running candidates were invited to speak.

Abney says the church staff were never used in any capacity associated with Meeks’s campaigns or legislative efforts as part of their work for Salem Baptist Church.

“If members volunteered they would have done it on their own,” says Abney. “It wouldn’t have been anything that I would have been aware of as an administrator at Salem [Baptist Church].”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Church Law & Tax
Christen Gall