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
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.