“THERE ARE TWO THINGS IN LIFE YOU CAN’T AVOID…”
As a church planter or church leader, there are some things we don’t like to think about but, in the end, cannot avoid. I can’t give official legal advice in this forum, but I can point out things that I’ve seen that, just like death and taxes, must be planned for and expected:
1) UNDERSTANDING YOUR CHURCH COULD GET SUED . . . AT ANY TIME
It is a bad day when a summons is served. Yet in reality, anyone can sue for any reason. They may not prevail, but they will certainly make your life difficult in the meantime.
Slip & fall, child abuse allegations, auto accident, board decision, food poisoning, parking lot mishap, dismissed employee, alleged misuse of a donation – all of these can lead to a lawsuit.
Of course, prevention is always best. Following good practices helps with prevention. But what protects you if you get sued? Simply put, your best line of defense is your liability insurance policy.
To avoid a legal drama at your church, carefully select and monitor your liability insurance coverages. Pay attention to recommendations and offers from your carrier.
2) PRIORITIZING CHILD SAFETY . . . OVER EVERYTHING
Yes, even at the expense of growth!
A child reports abuse while at your church—this is any church’s worst nightmare. Besides concerns for kids and concerns for the reputation of Christ’s church, there is the worry about the legal issues that could occur if a parent sues the church for an incident involving a staff member or volunteer.
To prevent this from happening at your church, enact strict child safety policies and follow them relentlessly. Be willing to close a room (and deal with the fact that you can’t be the church with the best kids’ programs on Earth) if you cannot adhere to your policies regarding properly screened volunteers and appropriate teacher-to-student ratios.
Willingness to comply with those policies will help prevent harm to kids and harm to the reputation of your church.
3) GETTING PERMISSION TO USE . . . ANYTHING
When you have invested significant time, money, and energy into buying blanket licenses, it is easy to assume your church is covered and has permission to use any artistic creation that seems compelling.
Then the letter from the law firm comes demanding you cease and desist (if you are fortunate) or demanding tens of thousands of dollars due to copyright infringement (if you are not so fortunate).
The first step is to research and purchase the appropriate licenses. But also be sure someone is asking the permission question about everything your use in your worship services, in your other programming, and even on your website.
Bottom line: get the proper licenses and special permissions, and make sure everything you use is encompassed by them.
4) KNOWING EXACTLY WHY MONEY GOES . . . TO ANYONE
Any time a church gives money to an individual, the church should understand why it is doing so. Is it benevolence? If so, is a proper benevolence policy in place and being followed? Is it expense reimbursement? If so, is there a proper accountability plan in place and is it being followed? Is it compensation? And if so, does the church understand the difference between an independent contractor and an employee?
Churches sometimes presume that interns, musicians, and custodians can be treated as 1099 contractors, as can part-time, temporary, low-responsibility people. Yet these are not the factors the IRS uses to determine which is which!
You need to know exactly what is happening any time the church gives money to an individual.
5) NEEDING TO HAVE PROPER LEGAL AUTHORITY . . . FOR EVERY ACTION
Nobody gets excited about Articles of Incorporation & Bylaws! But . . . .
The U.S. Government only has the authority that is delegated to it by “we the people,” and we only know that by what is written in our Constitution and other legal documents. Similarly, the only way a church can conduct business is if it has expressed authority to do so in its governing documents.
What powers do your church members have? Your elders? Your lead pastor? Can the church purchase property? Can it receive income and invest it? Can it ordain ministers? Can it buy insurance that shields board members and staff from personal liability from lawsuits?
Ensure consistency between what you actually do and what your governing documents say you can do.
Greg Hubbard is Orchard Group’s Director of Operations. Greg is a graduate of Cincinnati Christian University and has served in pastoral roles with new churches in New Jersey and Nevada. He received a law degree from UNLV and practiced law for several years in his hometown of Indianapolis.
This article is one in a series on church planting in the city. Read the rest of the series.