But I Told You That in Confidence!

Written by Founder Raul Rivera on May 04, 2017 in Pastoral Helps

Last month, Pastor Jason’s mentor (Rick) celebrated his last Sunday as pastor of the church that Jason is now leading. There were many tears and well wishes, but the church understood that it was time for Rick to move forward. 

During the service, Jason, along with several others, shared how Rick had affected each of their lives for the better. Jason told of a time when he and his wife’s marriage needed some guidance and how Rick used his own marriage experiences from the past to teach both Jason and his wife some invaluable lessons to help improve their marriage.

Fast forward about a month later, and Jason was shocked when he received an email from Rick expressing disappointment with what Jason had shared. Although what Jason shared was true, Rick felt that some may have perceived the real reason for his departure from the church to be marital problems, which was far from the truth. Rick thought that what was shared in private should have been kept private.

In his email, Rick went on to say that because they were close, he knew that Jason was just sharing from his heart with the best of intentions. However, Rick also wanted to use this as a lesson for Jason to learn how careful he must be when speaking from the pulpit.

Some could have easily taken what Jason said and used it to spread false rumors as to the “real” reason why Rick stepped down from the church. While that was not the case here, Rick wanted Jason to know that he might not be so lucky next time and that any other individual could attempt to hold Jason and the church liable for defamation.

Maintaining a high standard of integrity

Today’s blog topic is never an easy one to talk about, but it is one that every pastor should be reminded of every so often: defamation. Although the story above is fictional, it serves as a good reminder of just how easy our words can be misconstrued, especially by those who may not fully understand our hearts and intent.

In fact, many courts across the country have determined that ministers may be responsible for making defamatory remarks if a civil court can resolve the dispute without having to examine church doctrine or polity.

As a minister of the gospel, you are held to a higher standard of integrity. As one who speaks from the pulpit each week, your words hold a sense of authority and power. The Scripture tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death. . . .” (Proverbs 18:21 NIV)

Unfortunately, because of your place at the pulpit, you and the words you speak are scrutinized and watched very closely. Understanding what defamation is and how it relates to you as a minister is of utmost importance.

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In this post we will examine what defamation is, how it relates to you as a minister, and I will give you 5 effective ways to avoid defamation. There is a fine line between one person’s right to freedom of speech and another’s right to protect his/her name and reputation. The deeper your understanding is of defamation, the better for both you and your church.

What is defamation?

What do you think of when you hear the word defamation? Most likely, you think of it in a legal sense for when someone “bad-mouths” another person. For the most part, you are right.

According to law.com, defamation is “the act of making untrue statements about another, which damages his/her reputation.” 

In essence, defamation is a catch-all term for any comment, remark, or statement that harms someone’s reputation. Defamation may be written (libel) or spoken (slander) and is considered false by the accuser.

Truth be told, if you are a pastor of a church long enough, the day will come when you have to deal with an individual whose actions are troublesome and may not align with your church’s standards. How you address and deal with that situation matters.

How does defamation occur in the church?

We know what defamation with malicious intent looks like. It is usually the result of hurt feelings or extreme disapproval among two or more individuals with the intent to bring harm to one’s character or credibility. However, as we saw from the story this blog opened with, defamation can also be an unintentional result of what you say.

It is important to note that in order for defamation to occur, the “victim” must prove that it took place. In general, defamation contains the following elements:

  1. Oral or written statements about another individual,
  2. False content,
  3. Publication or communication to other persons, and
  4. Injury to another individual’s reputation. 

While there is more information that can be said about each of these elements, it will have to be saved for a future article. I will use the remainder of this article to share with you what you can do to help prevent accusations of defamation. 

5 effective ways to help avoid defamation from the pulpit

As a kid, did you ever sing the song “O Be Careful, Little Eyes” in Sunday school? If you recall, or if you are not aware, there is a certain verse in that song that goes, “O be careful little mouth what you say.” 

It is easy to dismiss that as a children’s Sunday school song, but as true as that particular line is for kids, it is still just as true for us as adults. And this is especially so for pastors speaking from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

As a pastor, the day will come, if it has not already, when you will have to deal with the actions of church members. How you do so requires wisdom.

Listed below are 5 effective ways that, if heeded, will help you to handle difficult matters with wisdom and integrity, and they will help you to avoid potential defamation.

1. Only announce matters of common interest

The behavior of one member may not be a matter of common interest to other members of your church. The act of sharing things that are not a matter of common interest may be considered public disclosure of private facts. Therefore, it is important that an article in your church’s bylaws allow you to deal with matters of common interest in the church. Let me tell you why.

There is what is known as the “qualified privilege defense to defamation.” 

In essence, this defense permits individuals in positions of authority to communicate information that is of common interest or mutual concern without it being considered slander or libel (defamation). 

Thus, if your bylaws address matters of common interest and you feel that a certain matter is necessary to announce to the church as a whole, then you can. Although, in such situations, I recommend that it be done with tact, respect, and integrity.

Those who have completed, or are going through, our StartRIGHT® Program will find this matter addressed within the “Mutual Interest” article of your bylaws. If your church’s bylaws do not include such language, then I recommend you consider making an amendment to include such language.

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2. Avoid conclusive statements

In the instance you have to address your congregation regarding the action(s) of another member, it is best to stay away from statements or remarks such as, “He was acting as an agent of the enemy.” 

That is a conclusive statement, and there is a big difference between describing a behavior and actually making a conclusion.

Instead, you might rephrase that statement as, “His actions exhibited repetitive behavior consistent with James 4:4, which this church and its leaders believe is contrary to God’s Word.”

As you can see, there is a big difference between the two. Both statements convey the same message, but one made it an ecclesiastical matter that was settled by the church, while the other left it open to interpretation.

3. Know what you want to accomplish

Before you share an incident involving a member or staff member with your congregation, ask yourself, “What am I hoping to accomplish?” 

Are you doing so out of anger and hurt? Are you trying to protect your own reputation? Do you truly have a redemptive purpose? Only you know your heart and why you choose to say what you say.

4. Speak the truth

Speaking the truth can be one of the best ways to avoid defamation. If you find that making a matter known is in the best interest of the church, then let the truth be presented in a way that promotes instruction. 

We can all learn from each other’s mistakes. The key is that we learn. 

As Galatians 6:1 instructs, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” 

5. Get permission

Stories of how God saved one from the brink of death, or how God broke one’s drug addiction, or how God restored a broken marriage can be powerful testimonies to God’s power, love, and kindness. 

However, because we live in such a litigious society, you should pause before you share one’s testimony in your sermon or teaching. Before sharing one’s testimony, it is best practice that you get permission from the individual. You may even want to consider obtaining his/her permission in writing.

Grace to weather any storm

I am sure you are familiar with the words of Jesus when He said, “Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.” (Luke 12:48 NLT) For those in leadership positions, those words could not be more true.

The hard truth is that God never promised that we would not face any storms. He did, however, promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us. Defamation is just one of the potential legal storms that may arise, but what about the other legal storms? In such an event, is your church prepared to weather those storms?

To help you and your church or ministry, I invite you to join us at one of our Ultimate Church Structure Conferences to help solidify your church’s legal foundation. You may not feel the urgency of the matter, but as Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” My only question to you now is, “When the storm passes through, on what side will you be standing?”

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Raul Rivera

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