How Should Churches Respond to Sexual Harassment?

Written by Founder Raul Rivera on Feb 20, 2018 in Church Management

In recent months numerous sexual harassment allegations have surfaced across multiple industries - politics, entertainment, universities, and news networks just to name a few.

The brave actions of a few helped spawn the #MeToo movement and in turn encouraged an unprecedented number of victims to step forward and share their stories.

It is times like these when the Church should be in the forefront, ready, willing, and able to offer support, care, and encouragement to the victims.

I’m afraid, however, that many churches and church leaders are not prepared nor equipped should a victim of sexual harassment step forward.

We have seen this unfortunate truth displayed nationally in recent weeks. In a recent Christianity Today article*, Rachael Denhollander, a victim in the Larry Nasser case, told of the rejection she experienced from church leaders. In her impact statement to the court, Denhollander stated that her “advocacy for sexual assault victims . . . cost me my church.”

As the Church of the One who gives voice to the voiceless, we must do better.

So, how should churches respond to sexual harassment allegations? What should pastors and church leaders have in place in order to prevent such actions from occurring?

I’ll answer these questions in this blog, but before I do, it is important to understand that churches are not immune from sexual harassment allegations.

Georgia church pays $25k in sexual harassment settlement

In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a suit against King’s Way Baptist Church on behalf of Marsha Pearson, a kindergarten teacher at the church’s school.

The suit was filed alleging that King’s Way retaliated against Ms. Pearson after she complained about sexual harassment. According to the complaint in the lawsuit, in October 2013 Ms. Pearson complained that the pastor, who was also the school superintendent, had been sexually harassing her.

The suit further alleged that when Ms. Pearson complained about the harassment, King’s Way leaders told her that she allowed the harassment to happen to her, and she was being discharged.

The EEOC charged that Ms. Pearson was actually fired because she reported sexual harassment.

In the end, King’s Way Baptist Church settled to pay $25,000 and to provide additional, undisclosed relief to Ms. Pearson.

In addition to the monetary settlement, King’s Way was required to

  • update its discrimination policies,
  • provide annual equal employment opportunity training,
  • make regular reports to the EEOC, and
  • post a notice to employees regarding their obligation to comply with all federal anti-discrimination laws.

This incident involving King’s Way Baptist Church and an employee goes to show that when it comes to sexual harassment allegations and the laws that govern them, churches are not immune.

So how should churches handle sexual harassment allegations? What should churches do in such instances?

The first thing that needs to take place is for pastors and church leaders to have a better understanding of what sexual harassment is.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The EEOC defines sexual harassment as follows:

“(a) Harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of section 703 of title VII. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

In short, the EEOC indicates that there are two types of sexual harassment conduct:

  1. Quid pro quo sexual harassment - conditions employment on the return of a sexual relationship or favors in some capacity.
  2. Hostile environment sexual harassment - occurs when there is frequent or pervasive unwanted sexual comments, advances, requests, or other similar conduct. It can also occur when there is other verbal or physical conduct that is sexual in nature.

8 items to include in your church’s sexual harassment policy

You may be surprised to hear that as an employer, your church could be held liable for sexual harassment committed by employees and non-employees.

As a result, all churches should create and adopt a sexual harassment policy.

While policies cannot totally prevent your church from being held liable 100% of the time, in such an instance, having a sexual harassment policy in place can still serve as a defense to liability.

At a minimum, you should consider including the following eight items in your church’s sexual harassment policy:

  1. Zero tolerance - Clearly state in your policy that sexual harassment of any sort is not, and will not be, tolerated.
  2. Definition - Providing a clear definition of sexual harassment is a must.
  3. Examples - Providing appropriate illustrations of what can be construed as sexual harassment will help bring clarity to your policy and your church’s stance on the matter.
  4. Duty to report - Employees who feel they have suffered sexual harassment need to understand that they have a responsibility to report the incident in a timely and accurate manner to the necessary individual (i.e., manager/supervisor).
  5. Retaliation - Since sexual harassment is typically committed by a person in power, it is important to those who have been subjected to harassment to understand that retaliation against them is absolutely prohibited.
  6. Compliant procedure - This process should be clearly documented with no room for doubt or questions. In addition, it is important that the investigative procedure be documented in detail.
  7. Confidentiality - Take every measure possible to ensure the greatest degree of confidentiality possible. Take note, however, that you cannot promise absolute confidentiality as certain circumstances may require you to inform law enforcement officials, attorneys, or other church leaders.
  8. Training - Adopting a policy is a good first step, but alone it is insufficient. Implementing an annual training is an active measure that can help prevent sexual harassment from occurring in your church.

Who’s got your back?

We recognize that leading a church in today’s society is not for the faint of heart. The world around us is changing, and it is changing fast.

You need someone who has your back as well as your church’s back, and at StartCHURCH, we’ve got your back.

We would love for you to join us at one of our conferences for a time of empowerment and impartation.

You can click on the link below to register for a conference in a city near you, or simply call us a 877-494-4655. We’d love to hear from you!

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Raul Rivera

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