Depending on the kind of religious work to be done in Canada and the ultimate immigration goal (temporary or permanent), immigration strategies for religious workers will vary.

Lowe & Company has a long history of working with churches and other religious organizations. We have been honoured to speak at the National Conference for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, publish articles on immigration/citizenship issues for foreign religious workers, guide many pastors and missionaries through the process of establishing a Canadian-based ministry, and helping these ministries bring in the right people for the mission. We understand this unique line of work.

Work Permit Exemptions

Immigration regulation s.186(l) allows a foreign national to work in Canada without a work permit when the main duties are “spiritual”.  This has three components:

  1. [A]ssisting a congregation or group assumes that the group exists in Canada.  Church planters are therefore generally excluded.
  2. [I]n the achievement of its spiritual goals may rule out administrative workers, organists, maintenance personnel and other workers with non-spiritual duties.
  3. [W]hose main duties are to preach doctrine, perform functions related to gatherings of the congregation or group or provide spiritual counselling refer to the usual functions of clergy.  A foreign worker may perform other duties, but their main duties should fall within these boundaries.

An evangelist like Billy Graham, for example, would rely on this exemption for a week-long crusade, as would an overseas pastor serving a two-year term in a local church.  Qualifying workers are entitled to be paid.

Obtaining proper documentation under this exemption is important, as it may allow the worker to qualify for medical insurance, to access free public schooling for children and to obtain a spousal work permit. Clergy working under Regulation 186(l) may even be able to qualify for immigration under the Canadian Experience class.

Work Permit Options

Foreign Nationals who intend to work in a charitable organization performing other “non-spiritual” duties will usually require a work permit.  There are several ways to obtain one, including:

  1. Labour Market Opinion (“LMO”):   A Canadian employer can apply to Service Canada for a LMO stating that the position offered to a foreign worker would not have a negative effect on the Canadian labour market.  The foreign national employee can then apply for a work permit for that position.
  1. Religious and Charitable Workers Exemption: Immigration regulation s.205 (d) reads:

A work permit may be issued under section 200 to a foreign national who intends to perform work that…(d) is of a religious or charitable nature.”

According to Canada’s immigration position on qualifying under this category, the work must:

  • Be on a volunteer basis  and without remuneration, though a small living allowance may be acceptable;
  • Not lead to direct remuneration to the charitable organization for the work done;
  • Go “above and beyond normal work in the labour market” (ex: workers that paint/repair houses for the poor, who would not otherwise have been able to do it themselves or pay for services).

We believe Canada Immigration’s position is unduly restrictive here, and that this interpretation could be challenged.

  1. Intra-Company Transferees: A work permit can be obtained for a foreign religious or charitable group wanting to:
  • establish a Canadian branch,
  • transfer a senior executive, senior manager, or person with specialized knowledge to an existing Canadian branch.

The transferee must have worked with the foreign branch for at least one year in the previous three years. This provision is very useful for transferring administrative personnel.

  1. North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”): For American or Mexican citizens, some positions, such as accountants, can also qualify for a NAFTA-based work permit which avoids the advertising and minimum salary requirements commonly found with other work permits.  This is a useful tool for ministries that often cannot afford market wages for professionals.

These options are useful, even if a work permit exemption exists, as certain work permits can qualify the foreign religious worker for permanent immigration.

Societies and Charitable Organizations

Societies are non-profit organizations that may be incorporated in order to exist independently from their members.  Societies may not necessarily be Charitable Organizations.  Charitable Organizations are given charitable status through a lengthy and detailed approval process with the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”).  They must have a mandate to relieve poverty, advance education, advance religion or benefit the community.  The CRA has a list of all Canadian charities in good standing available through their website at

Society incorporation and charitable status application/maintenance are additional services that Lowe & Company have available.