by Josh Bryant
In a previous article, I described 5 questions that church leaders need to ask in terms of making a decision that would result in the church being called ethical. In reality, no one church leader makes all the decisions that result in an organization's actions. The Senior Pastor, staff, key lay leaders, other leaders, and volunteers all act in a manner that reflects on the church itself. These actions are the actions of the church as much or more than they are the actions of one person. How then do we restrain the conduct of the organization? In short, a strategic ethics program.
Many would say that the church of all places needs an ethics program the least. Churches don't need policies and procedures because no volunteer would intentionally harm the church or have the authority to do anything that would. Churches don't need to worry about violating obscure laws because churches are "small fish" compared to big corporations. Churches don't need codes of conduct for volunteers because we all follow Christ and will do the right thing.
These statements simply could not be further from the truth. More and more lay counseling programs are popping up that are poorly supervised and trained. Volunteers are operating chainsaws, heavy equipment, and automobiles full of children. Churches aren't so small any more. Mega churches and multisite churches are growing in number, and many times in size. As churches grow, budgets grow. Volunteers will always do the right thing? Tell that to the churches and charities that will lose $5 billion this year alone to fraud and theft. We must lead our churches to be very intentional in structuring the church's conduct. Here are four levels of ethics to strive for, each building on the one before it.
Level 1 Church - Compliance Driven Ethics
At this level, your church's method of ethical behavior is driven by a need to protect the organization. You have policies and procedures in place designed to meet the government's requirements of the church. You have rules and disciplinary procedures for staff members to enforce compliance with your code of conduct. The focus of your ethics program is all about "following the rules."
In some regards, most churches find themselves in this area of the spectrum or below. Far too many churches do not have any policies and procedures. Too many church leaders are completely unaware that their church is violating several laws that could result in serious harm to the church. This state of blissful ignorance has been tolerated and ignored for a long time, but we are starting to see that tolerance end. Churches have control over staff by threats of being fired, but they do not have the same "control" over their volunteers. Most have such a volunteer shortage that they will not fire a volunteer at any cost. In order to fully meet the requirements of even a compliance driven ethics programs, these are areas that the church must address.
Level 2 Church - Risk Driven Ethics
At this level, your church has developed a more sophisticated system for measuring risks and mitigating them. You have resources assigned to tackle them. You have begun to create an ethical culture at the church among staff and volunteers, but your efforts are still very inward focused. The church is more concerned with the effect of the conduct of its employees and volunteers on the church than the effect of that conduct on the outside world. In other words, you're still acting to protect the church.
Very few churches exist at this level. Even those with well developed policy manuals usually do not have a great system of measuring what risk is out there and how to ethically mitigate that risk. Very few churches have an employee with the responsibility of doing so. Very few churches are employing quality risk assumptions and liability waivers that one would expect at this level. Most churches are comfortable either ignoring the issue or simply ensuring staff comply with the rules.
Level 3 Church - Reputation Driven Ethics
At first glance the name of this level sounds prideful and self-centered, but it isn't. We want the church to look good to the outside world. We want what Jesus offers to be attractive without the church making it less attractive.
At this level, the church is paying attention to the ramifications of its decisions on the world around it - those directly impacted by its actions. Instead of a tyrant enforcing policy on staff, the church pays attention to what would make their lives better. The church focuses on how it can make its members and guests lives better. When the church is concerned about its reputation - not pridefully but for the cause of Christ - its relationships with employees, volunteers, members, and guests grow stronger. Employees and volunteers are more productive. More members volunteer.
I can hear you already - "we are focused on a lot of these things." There are many churches who do very well meeting ethical obligations at this level. But statistics show that most church staff are still severely under paid. We are concerned with providing a great worship experience and spiritual growth for our members and guests, but people are coming less frequently. These are our goals, there is just no ethics program attached to them. There is nothing that governs the church's conduct to make sure this happens. There are no policies and procedures governing parking lot greeters or the process by which a guest speaker is vetted and approved. Furthermore, all of this is built on a foundation that is crumbling at best. Each level builds on the previous one, so if we do not fix those problems, we could very easily find the comfy chair of our laurels that we are resting in get kicked out from underneath us by a litigious, hostile world.
Level 4 Church - Culture Driven Ethics
At this level, your church is adding value to its community and to other churches. Your church is considering future generations and people who have not yet been born who will worship at your church decades from now. Some believe that to reach this level your church must be concerned with its environment through recycling programs, clean energy usage, carbon footprints and more. None of these concerns are bad or unbiblical, even if you do not believe in global warming (I offer no opinion on the subject). Your community not only benefits from your church, it trusts your church. As a result, your church's conduct optimally achieves its mission.
Here you have policies and procedures for the entire church. Every operation is performed within the same parameters every time. As such, the community begins to rely on and trust those operations. The chances of variable conduct derailing the train and causing a legal disaster are minimized. You have a code of ethics that is part of your DNA. You talk about it, teach it, publish it, and live it. Your church's conduct is intentionally designed to bring value to the Kingdom of God, to do everything it is obliged to do, to take care and shepherd those God has entrusted to it, to fulfill the Great Commission, and to be a trusted and valuable member of society. This is the kind of church ethics program we should strive for.
by Josh Bryant
We are excited to announce $1W (short for One Dollar Webinar). This is going to be a short, 15-minute webinar on a wide variety of topics that church leaders need to know about. Our first webinar will be on vetting volunteers. We'll have quick points that are easy for you to copy down, and you'll have the ability to ask questions. You are guaranteed to get an answer from an attorney that specializes in the law as applied to churches if you are a registered attendee. We'll have a follow up Facebook Live at the Church Esquire Club immediately following the webinar.
Don't miss this awesome opportunity. Sign up below!
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.
Southern Baptists have been busy discussing what is appropriate in counseling after statements Southwestern Seminary's President Dr. Paige Patterson made regarding counseling divorce in the case of abuse came under scrutiny. The line of demarkation is clear at this point - some defending Patterson with a heavy emphasis on the sanctity of marriage; some calling for his resignation over insensitivity to abuse. I can add little clarity to that discussion, except to say that I pray I am raising a daughter who will run from such a situation (God forbid she ever find herself there), and sons who will never treat women so disrespectfully. We should also remember that we live in a day in age in which wives can abuse husbands too.
What I can add to the conversation is a review of the risks churches assume in counseling victims of domestic abuse. Here are a few liability vectors that churches and pastors need to consider on this subject.
A pastor can be held liable in this situation under a theory of general negligence. There are four things an abuse victim would have to prove: 1) the pastor or church owed a duty to the abuse victim, 2) the pastor breached that duty by an act or omission, 3) damages, and 4) the pastor in some way caused the damages.
Generally, the courts will not hold a pastor responsible for counseling on strictly spiritual matters due to the First Amendment. For many evangelicals, marriage counseling is a deeply spiritual matter to which Scripture speaks a great deal. Unfortunately, our culture is increasingly divorcing marriage from spiritual life. As such, some courts have held that pastors have a duty of care to persons seeking marriage counseling, the breach of which is not subject to First Amendment protections. Damages would be easy enough to prove in the case of physical abuse. Causation can be established by the trusting and somewhat authoritative relationship between pastor and person seeking pastoral guidance. Pastors therefore take a big risk by advising abuse victims to stay in an abusive situation.
Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention
Liability for the church in this scenario would only stand if proven vicariously. In other words, the church is not directly responsible to the abuse victim, but as with all organizations it does have a responsibility to adequately interview, supervise, and if necessary fire any employee of the church. The duty is not the focus; churches have duties to oversee their employees. If the church does not do a thorough interview of a pastor, or if the church knew the pastor's stance was that victims should only pray for their abuser and remain in an abusive home, then the church could be held liable for negligent hiring. If the church does not supervise activities of a pastor that a court could deem as "non-spiritual" so as to allow a suit to proceed, then the church can be held liable for the actions of the pastor under a negligent supervision theory. If the church does supervise and knows that a pastor is counseling abuse victims to remain in abusive situations, then the theory would not be negligent supervision but negligent retention. In either of these cases, both the church and the pastor could be held liable and worse, the pastor and church will often end up bickering over who is more liable.
Some churches utilize peer counseling ministries in lieu of strictly pastoral counseling. Even in these scenarios, churches must be very careful in selecting, supervising, and revoking the privileges (if necessary) of lay counselors. Failure to do so can result in the church being held liable for the advice of the lay counselor.
Knowing now that counseling in and of itself contains risk regardless of the circumstance, what are some things we can do to protect ourselves?
1. Hire or refer. The psychological dynamics of abuse take counseling here out of many pastors' realm of expertise. However, seminaries are churning out tons of counseling graduates that could work at your church. Hire a pastor of pastoral care for your church to handle things like hospital, assisted living, and hospice visits, counseling, benevolence, and so forth. If you don't have the budget for another staff member, gather a list of good Christian counselors in the area and refer the matter out.
2. Statement of Ethics. While your statement of faith will not change with the culture, your statement of ethics will at least grow as conduct once reprehensible becomes more commonplace. Based on what your church believes the Bible says about man, sin, the church, and marriage, how do you expect members to act? In light of the #MeToo movement, growing allegations of sexual assault, abuse, and more, your statement of ethics or white papers should directly address and repudiate any form of abuse. Pastors and lay counselors should then be not only held to that standard, but also enforce that standard by encouraging separation from abusive situations.
3. Documentation. If you are going to have a pastoral counseling practice in your church, you need good documentation. This should include an agreement that a) requires alternative dispute resolution in the event the person seeking pastoral guidance is injured by the counseling process, and b) specifies exactly what you are qualified and not qualified to handle. It should also include routine note taking about what took place in every counseling session and a final letter of some sort indicating that the counseling relationship has ended. These documents must remain confidential.
4. Basic Policy Protections. Institute policies that prohibit male pastors from counseling females alone or that only women may counsel women. Establish other guidelines such as an open door policy or windows so that others may see inside the office while counseling is taking place. Utilize technology for video or telephone counseling. These should be in effect with all interpersonal relationships to prohibit the appearance of impropriety and hopefully limit the chances of a false claim of sexual misconduct. Counseling is often the first step to such an allegation.
5. Specific Policy Considerations. Limit what your pastors or lay counselors can discuss to things that are strictly spiritual or biblical in nature, that deal with a person's sanctification, and so forth. Limit the use of the term "counseling" because that can bring you under state licensing requirements. Instead, offer spiritual guidance or biblical guidance.
6. Insurance. Talk to your insurance carrier about professional liability insurance and Employment Practices Liability Insurance to cover the church in the event a pastor or lay counselor is found to be negligent in the practice of biblical counseling. Depending on the specific practices of your church, these policies can be rather inexpensive.
My Momma always told me never talk about religion or politics - at least someone's momma told me that. Here we are about to talk about both in one post. The political activity of churches has been in the news a lot this year since President Trump has allegedly repealed the Johnson Amendment that prohibited 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations from politicking from the pulpit. Did you know that isn't exactly true? The President doesn't have the authority to change congressional legislation. By executive order, he changed the way it is to be interpreted by the IRS. As has been proven time and time again over the last several administrations, with the stroke of a pen that interpretation can again be changed. Here are some reasons to have your Church General Counsel review your political activity policy.
- A written policy on employee political activity is wise.
First of all, a written policy on employee political activity is wise. Do you want your staff or your church to support a particular party or candidate from the pulpit? Does such conduct align with the vision and mission of your church? Is it ok for your staff members to run for office? Can church funds be used for political purposes? What about church resources - could they be used on behalf of a political candidate? Is it ok for church staff to use church time to lobby or campaign? These are all questions which your personnel committee, elders, and/or senior pastors need to answer and put in writing so that everyone is aligned with the direction of church leadership.
Secondly, it is important that you have a political activity policy that is flexible and can be changed quickly. Right now, the Executive Order on the Johnson Amendment prohibits the IRS from finding a church guilty of violating the Johnson Amendment if it could not also find a secular institution guilty. How that would play out if litigated is far from certain since churches have a much bigger pulpit (pun intended) than most 501(c)(3) organizations. Nevertheless, this is just an executive order that cannot overturn congressional legislation. As quickly as it was signed by President Trump, it could be revoked by Congress, the courts (if challenged), or a subsequent president. As such, you need the ability to quickly update, disseminate, and educate others on a policy that aligns with the law as it changes. Managing Attorney Josh Bryant stands ready to help your church comply with this law.
Third, churches need to be fully informed of the repercussions of violating IRS regulations for 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations. If prosecuted, a church could lose its tax exempt status. That means that every donation made to your church is no longer deductible by your donors. It could hurt your annual giving and ultimately shut the doors to your church. Now, we don't want to be alarmists, and to be fair this is something that has not been tested. However, the law clearly states that you could lose your tax exempt status if found guilty of violating this law. Churches are wise to render unto Caesar in this regard.
Finally, your church needs to understand that there is a difference between endorsement of a particular candidate or party and issue advocacy. You can preach on abortion or poverty until you are blue in the face as long as it doesn't appear that you are endorsing a particular candidate or political party. The government can even complicate this though, as the law up until know has allowed the government to infer violation based on a number of factors even when the content of the message appears on its face to be simply issue based and not directed toward any given party or candidate. Josh Bryant has worked with churches on this issue before, and he can help your church ensure compliance with this unusual law.
There are many different best practices that you could engage in to protect your church from this risk. While we don't want to stifle political speech, we do want to make sure your church is protected from undue government interference. Subscribe to Church General Counsel today for more information.
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.