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
Church General Counsel is super excited to announce the launch of Law and Church, a podcast for church leaders from church lawyers. We will interview some of the top church leaders from across the country on issues churches are facing that have legal implications. We'll work through cases of churches that are in court right now so that we can learn from them together and work to avoid similar situations.
The podcast will be hosted by Josh Bryant and Bryan Fittin. Our first guest is Dr. Thom Rainer, President of Church Answers and former CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. We will also interview Jim Sheppard, Principle and CEO of Generis. Generis is a stewardship consulting firm that helps churches across the country. We also have interviews scheduled with student pastors, security experts, child abuse experts, senior pastors, and more.
We look forward to helping pastors, ministers, and church leaders with this podcast. Learn more at www.LawAndChurch.com.
by Josh Bryant
Churches have a heightened sensitivity to background checks right now in light of a report by the Houston Chronicle that found 700 cases of sexual misconduct over the last 20 years in Southern Baptist Churches. But do you know what to do when you get a positive result? The answer may seem to be as simple as telling the person they cannot volunteer or serve on staff, but because of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it isn't that simple. Here are five things you need to know about a positive background check.
1. Make sure you had their permission before you do anything. Several laws require written consent of the person before you run a background check on them. Failure to have that permission could get your church into trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice, and any number of state institutions, not to mention a law suit for invasion of privacy. If you didn't have their permission, go get it and run the background check again.
2. Don't say no...yet. Before you take an "adverse action" against a volunteer or staff member by not allowing them to serve, you must give them a notice that includes a copy of the background check report you received. You must also include a document put out by the CFPB called "A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act" and give them at least five days to explain or contest the content of the report. To be safe, give them ten.
3. Now you can say no. If they don't contest the information or explain it to your church's satisfaction, now you can tell them no. But you have to do it in a certain way too. You have to tell them that they were rejected because of the information in the report, give them the name, address and phone number of the company that ran the report, inform them that the company who ran the report did not make the decision to deny them the opportunity to serve, and inform them of their right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of the report and get a free copy of the report from the company that ran it within 60 days. But...
4. Make sure you say no uniformly. Especially in the context of employment, failure to uniformly say no is discriminatory and can get your church in trouble. For example, if you tell one applicant no because they had a DWI on their record and another yes even though they also had a DWI on their record, you'd better have a very good reason for treating the two differently or you could be in trouble with the EEOC. Volunteers really don't have much of a recourse, but it does look bad. So write down what disqualifies a person from what roles in the church so that you plan in advance how to handle certain findings on a background check. And...
5. Make sure you maintain confidentiality. You need to lock the report up for a year and then either shred or burn it. If you store it digitally (which I don't recommend), you need to make sure you've got adequate data security in place and that you have the proper IT infrastructure to completely erase the data from your systems after a year. Moving it to the recycle bin or trash can on your computer is insufficient; the FCRA mandates that electronic copies cannot be reconstructed. That usually requires special software or hardware to make happen.
God has moved His church in recent years to really focus on developing church leaders who love Him immensely and know how to influence others to move the church towards executing its mission of reaching the lost. He's taking it a step further to develop lay leaders in the church who are leaders in their homes, communities, governments, and businesses and can influence others in those contexts for Christ. Now as a matter of necessity, the Church needs leaders who can simplify the complex interaction between the spiritual we learned in seminary and the law governing organizations that most of us did not. Here are three principles church leaders should know in our legal environment.
1. Good leaders Govern.
If you cringed reading those three words, you're not alone. I cringed writing them. But by definition, leadership (the action of leading a group of people or an organization) requires governance (the manner of conducting the actions, affairs, and policies of an organization or group of people). Do you see the difference, but synergy between the two?
Leadership is what we do. We rally the saints for worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism. We build consensus among the saints about the priorities and activities of the church. Leaders motivate. Leaders inspire. Leaders build relationships with people who so are inspired and motivated by the leader's vision that not only will they follow the leader, but they'll lead others to follow too. Then what?
Our organizations - our groups of called out people (ekklesia) - must act. They must carry on day-to-day affairs with the overarching goal to obey the command of Christ to spread His gospel from the pulpit to the farthest reaches of our planet. Leadership is what we do, governance is how we do it.
God established the instruments of church leadership and governance in Scripture - pastors (poimen), elders (presbuteros), and overseers (episkopos). Hermeneutically, how do we apply this as laid out in the historical context of Paul's writings to the Ephesians, Timothy and Titus to our current context? How do we submit to the authority of Scripture and the authority of the rule of law? The answer is deceptively simple.
2. Good governance requires law.
The church is to be in the world but not of it, so we still must operate within its various constructs. The American legal construct is becoming more complex by the day. Churches are finding themselves more taxed than ever. The rules around how you provide employee parking could subject your church or its staff to a tax. The rules about revenue streams other than charitable donations are complex and being enforced more stringently all the time (even by sympathetic administrations). Courts are side stepping First Amendment claims that the government has no business in a church's selection of its clergy relying on business law principles to force the church's hand in some employment cases. If good leaders govern and good governance requires law, good leaders know law.
Of course, the word law has multiple meanings. There are tax laws, employment laws, safety laws, property laws, zoning laws, laws governing the duties we owe to one another (torts), contract laws, criminal laws - all of which affect the church in some way. But there are also laws of church growth, laws of evangelism, laws of discipleship, laws of worship, laws of fellowship, laws of service, laws of ministry - timeless principles in Scripture that give the church its mission and function in the Kingdom. There are laws of men and laws of God. As long as the two do not conflict they must guide what we do. The question is, how are we going to do that? Again, the answer is deceptively simple.
3. Good leaders govern with words.
Write it down. Sounds simple, right? As with just about everything in life, it is easier said than done. Nevertheless, we must do hard things for the cause of Christ if those things will make our churches more secure, effective, and efficient. Writing down how your church is going to carry out an action does all three.
Let's take hiring a youth pastor as an example. You've heeded the advice of this blog and sat down in your office to write down how you are going to do that. The first thing on your list - write a job advertisement. Next, publish the advertisement. Third, receive resumes. Fourth, review resumes. Fifth, throw away 95% of them. And so forth and so on. Done. Right?
Not quite. You've engaged in leadership - you've written down what the church is going to do. But you've not engaged in governance - how you're going to do it. Have you decided how much to pay the new youth minister? Have you considered the Equal Pay Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and other laws of men that affect that decision? Have you considered the biblical description of who fills the pastoral office and how the office must be filled? How will your church meet all of these requirements?
The laws of men and laws of God weigh on how you hire; they speak to how you govern. What you write down are policies and procedures. They should provide two guardrails on either side of your church's path that provide security. One guardrail stops your church from doing anything illegal under the laws of men, the other stops your church from doing anything unbiblical under the laws of God. The guardrails are the governance. The path in between and the ultimate destination? That's leadership.
Writing it down also makes your church more effective. You can look back at how your church hired a youth minister and take note of the stick points - those areas in the process that created difficulty and can be improved upon so that when it's time to hire a music minister you have a better job description, a better candidate pool, and ultimately a person in the job that fits your church's culture.
Writing it down makes your church more efficient. Most of the time, one person is not solely responsible for the hiring process. Others in the church may participate in the interview process. Others still need to know how to collect documents that comply with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the Internal Revenue Code, and other state and federal laws. When you write down how to hire and teach it to everyone involved, that education combined with experience creates efficiency.
I believe every church can be more secure, effective, and efficient by leveraging the laws of men to obey the laws of God. I hope this has helped you lead your church in some small way for His fame and glory.
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.