by Josh Bryant
This may be one of the easier things you could do in ministry. Church leaders have been doing it for decades. As society becomes more litigious with courts that are more open to issuing a judgment against a church, church leaders have begun to feel the effects of bad bylaws. Here are five ways to mess up your church’s bylaws.
1. Do It Yourself.
This may have just negated the rest of the rest of this article but trying to write a legal document without legal training is often akin to doing surgery on yourself. You could really do a lot of damage. You really need to get a lawyer to help, and preferably one who understands how churches operate differently than businesses. Shameless plug: our managing attorney has served as a pastor at a large regional church and works almost exclusively with churches.
2. Write In Complicated Procedures
The more complicated the procedure to make decisions in the church, the more difficult it will be for the church to do just about anything. The process of making a decision must be simple. There should be a clearly defined, step-by-step process at each level of the church with decision making authority.
3. Fail to Identify Decision Makers
Speaking of levels of authority, your bylaws must have a clear authority structure. What decisions do committees make? What decisions do staff make? What decisions must the board or elders make? These are questions your church bylaws must answer. Your church bylaws must also address how decisions are reviewed and the process for undoing a decision.
4. Refer to Roberts Rules of Order
Ever. Roberts Rules have no place in the decision making of a church. They are far too complicated and outdated. If the church does not follow the proper process of making a decision, the decision itself is open to attack in court. Write your own rules of order, or better yet download your free copy of the rules we’ve written for churches here.
5. Ignore Them
Most churches have bylaws that were drafted ignoring at least three of the above four no-nos. As such, they are too difficult to follow and the temptation too strong to just ignore the bylaws and make a decision. Courts have changed a church’s doctrine, required a church to rehire a fired pastor, and otherwise interfered in the internal affairs of the church because the church failed to follow its own bylaws. If they are too difficult to follow, hire a parliamentarian to help you navigate church votes until you can get them amended to be far easier to follow. Under no circumstance should a church ever fail to follow its own bylaws.
The church’s failure to follow its own bylaws is probably one of the most dangerous sleeping giants in the church world today. Sexual abuse in the church is a dangerous problem – one that a fair percentage of churches will have to deal with. I dare say that a greater percentage have bylaws problems – a ticking time bomb that could cause major problems if not taken care of.
By Josh Bryant
In a blog last week, I described five ethical questions for church leaders to ask. As a recap, the first was about as simple as it gets: what would God want? This is the classical understanding of organizational ethics as it applies to the church. The question requires church leaders to develop a systematic or biblical theology regarding the question at hand. What does the Bible say that would help answer the question of how to handle sexual abuse?
The question may seem like a no brainer, but I’ve received two phone calls in as many days about situations in which pastors told victims that it would be best to handle something internally rather than appropriately address an issue of sexual abuse. This conclusion and others like it are usually based on one fallacy: viewing Scripture through a pinhole. Typically, the verse people point me to when arguing with me over whether they can keep an issue of abuse internal to the church is 1 Timothy 5:19, which reads “Don’t accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses.”
One verse is not a system. Broadly speaking, systems require more than one moving part working together. Unless the rest of Scripture is totally silent on the topic, we cannot stop with this one verse as a dispositive answer.
We certainly cannot pick this one verse out of 1 Timothy and read nothing around it. Taking verses out of context in this manner is a fatal exegetical error. If we read the entire passage we’ll notice that this verse is set in contrast to “good leaders…who work hard at preaching and teaching” (v. 17) and followed by commands to publicly rebuke those who sin (v. 20) and to be cautious and deliberate in how the church appoints elders (v. 22). Paul reminded Timothy to be impartial (v. 21) and that some people’s sin remains hidden (v. 24). When a church leader’s sin surfaces, we must take steps to deal with it. We cannot say under the circumstances that there are not enough witnesses and dismiss someone alleging sexual abuse against a church leader. Churches must act, but what must they do?
Most leaders who prefer to sweep things under the rug do not consider other passages, such as Romans 13. There Paul instructed the church in Rome to teach submission to governing authorities and explained why they should so teach. “…government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience.” (v.4b-5).
Classical organizational ethics require the church to turn the criminal conduct of the elder over to law enforcement. We must be able to separate the man from the office. While we may be able to seek grace for not exercising church discipline immediately because of a lack of witnesses (although that would be unwise legally), we cannot do so for failing to hear the accusation against a church leader and to turn it over to the authorities. As Paul said, “the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.” (v. 2). Too many church leaders are experiencing the consequences of their choice to resist submission to authorities by not reporting crime to law enforcement.
By Josh Bryant
In my experience, many people in congregations across America do not understand mandated reporting. This usually is not evident until a volunteer or staff member must make a report to the child abuse hotline. If a parent or guardian finds out that someone from the church made a report to the hotline, it can really cause some hard feelings. Some of those feelings come just from the perception that making the call is immediately a personal accusation of child abuse. Other feelings come from an ignorance of the facts of the situation.
Many people in your congregation probably define mandated reporter only by that title. The think a mandated reporter is someone who must report child abuse. However, they do not usually include in that definition that a mandated reporter is someone who could be criminally charged if they fail to make a report of child abuse. It never crosses their minds that you or another from the church really does not have a choice.
Few people in the church understand that very rarely is a call to the child abuse hotline an actual allegation. You may have only seen inexplicable bruising on a child’s face. Someone may have just told you that they were being sexually abused without disclosing the offender’s identity. Sometimes your report to the hotline may be made on credible hearsay. A report is just that – a report. They do not understand that in many instances it is not an accusation that a person is abusing their child.
Very few people in the church understand the necessity to err on the side of caution. They do not stop to place themselves in the shoes of other parents. They do not consider how they would feel about sending their child to the church if another child was abused and the church did not report it. Most simply just do not understand that church leaders must weigh the evidence they have at the time and determine whether a reasonable person would suspect that child abuse could have occurred. They do not understand how low of a burden that is; most church leaders do not understand how low of a burden “reasonable suspicion” is. In close calls, church leaders must make a report.
What’s a church leader to do?
1. Educate Your Congregation.
Many churches have parent orientation meetings or something similar. If you are not already telling your church that you have a zero-tolerance policy for child abuse, you should take the opportunity to do so. Teach them about what mandated reporting really means: criminal liability for mandated reporters who do not report, reporting and not accusing, and the low burden of “reasonable suspicion.”
2. A Congregational Thought Experiment
Make your congregation think through the scenario before it happens. Ask parents what they would do if a child that was not theirs was abused and the church did not call it in. Most will tell you that they would leave or at least hesitate to put their children in care. Make sure they understand that feeling before a point comes where you may have to make a report concerning their child.
3. Weigh the Alternatives.
Most people would reach a conclusion of concern when faced with that thought experiment. As a church leader, weigh the alternatives of not reporting. On the one hand you could report and maybe lose a family or two that are upset with you. On the other hand, you could not report and lose many families concerned about your failure to report. You could also get a little jail time. When in doubt, report.
by Josh Bryant
Churches sometimes suffer damage. Weather, vandalism, busted water pipes - all have the potential to do a lot of damage to your church. Hopefully, you have good insurance to help you recover but some insurance companies will do everything they can to keep from paying for damages. When that happens, the church's recourse is to pay for the damage itself or take the matter to court.
You can't wait to do things right because you don't know whether the case will go to court until much later. If it goes to court, you will inevitably need an expert witness to describe how the damage occurred. Courts typically follow what's called the "Daubert Rule" in determining whether a person is qualified to testify as an expert. Here are four things churches must review when bringing a contractor in to review the damage to help ensure that person can later be certified as an expert witness.
The contractor must be properly educated. Where did the contractor go to school? Did the contractor have any kind of apprenticeship? If there is structural damage, does the person have an engineering degree and Professional Engineer (PE) credential? What courses or continuing education seminars have they taken specific to the type of damage that your church has suffered? How have they kept their skills up? Have they ever spent time teaching others in their craft? These are all important questions to which you need to have answers to show the expertise of the contractor or engineer.
Your contractor or engineer must have a good deal of experience. How long have they been in the field? How many cases have they worked with damage similar to the damage your church has suffered? How many cases have they worked in which the damaged property was constructed in the same way your church was built? If your contractor or engineer does not have a good bit of experience, they will not qualify as an expert.
You need to know how your contractor or engineer will assess the damage. When you find out, Google it. If you don't find anything online about how to go about those methods, those methods may not be reliable. If you find others who are using those methods then you may be able to assume that those methods are reliable. The ultimate question is whether others in the industry acknowledge those methods as reliable to gather the necessary facts to reach an expert conclusion.
Your contractor's schedule will be important. You can't wait for your contractor or engineer to review the damage. The more time that passes, the more that other things could work to cause or make the damage worse.
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me." It is a sad state of affairs that given such a command we have to talk about a policy that protects kids. Nevertheless, year in and year out, the abuse of kids and vulnerable adults is the top reason why churches end up in court. Since churches get sued most frequently on this issue, the question isn't "why have an attorney review our child protection policy?" The question is, "why wouldn't you?" Here are a few good reasons your church needs a child and vulnerable adult protection policy written by an attorney.
- Your church needs a policy that protects children and vulnerable adults from sexual predators.
Let's start with the main reason you need a good child and vulnerable adult protection policy: sexual abuse in the church hurts the cause of Christ, especially when its victim is a child. The church should be a beacon of hope that points to Christ, not the object of criticism because church leaders did not have a good policy in place to protect kids when they know how prevalent sexual abuse in the church has been up until now. Your church must have a robust policy that does everything it can to prevent abuse from ever occurring.
Secondly, you need a policy that aligns with what most liability insurance companies want. Josh Bryant has experience working with insurance companies on obtaining supplemental sexual incident coverage that is not covered by most general liability policies. Insurance companies are in a great position to know how sexual abuse in the church has occurred in the past, and know exactly what kind of policies they want to see before underwriting an insurance policy.
Third, your church needs a policy that perseveres evidence that a defense attorney will want to present to a judge or jury in the event your church is sued after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Unfortunately, churches in which sexual abuse has occurred are more likely to be guilty until proven innocent, and the only things that proves innocence is evidence. You must preserve evidence as best you can, and Josh Bryant has experience in litigation such that he knows what kind of evidence is necessary.
Fourth, your church needs a policy that is as legally defensible as it is operationally manageable. No policy is worth the paper it is written on if the pastors and volunteers responsible for enforcing that policy don't do it. Most pastors and volunteers don't want to be insubordinate to church policy - they simply don't have the time to do much of what a policy requires sometimes. That is why it is important to have an attorney with experience not only in law, but in ministry as well. Josh Bryant can help balance the ministry needs with the legal best practices.
Finally, you need someone to help with your child protection policies like Josh Bryant, who has the experience necessary to get the job done well. When you sign up for our attorney access plan, this is usually one of the first policies that Church General Counsel will review.
It is so important to have a good child protection policy. Members can see more tips on drafting this policy in our members only area, or you can contact us for more information on how we can help you draft a good child and vulnerable adult protection policy.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.