Lawsuit Claims Church Ordained Wrong Person

In January of 2014, the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) was found liable for the actions of one of its church-planting pastors, and it was ordered to pay 12.5 million dollars to the plaintiff. 

Here is the history behind the case. 

In 2005, one of the pastors from an FBC affiliated church engaged in molestation acts against a 13-year-old boy, resulting in a criminal case and a guilty plea. Since then, the defendant pastor has served time in prison for his actions. 

When a pastor plants a church with the help of the FBC, the pastor acts independently of the FBC and is employed by the church he is planting. However, the FBC supports the pastor indirectly by forwarding a stipend to the young church so that it can pay the pastor a salary. 

In the subsequent, civil lawsuit, a jury ruled against the FBC, stating that the criminal pastor was acting on behalf of the FBC, even though he was not employed by the FBC. Many were surprised why the jury found the FBC liable for the acts of the pastor.

(Recommended reading: “Start a Church, Then Get Ordained”)

A closer look at the FBC’s vetting process

During the trial, it was discovered that the FBC had several steps in place to vet each minister it recognized as a church planter. In addition to interviews and personal conversations the leadership had with this particular church planter, the FBC also took the following steps:

  1. Criminal background check: This is a search to see if a person has a criminal record.
  2. Motor vehicle check: This is a search to determine if a person has past convictions for driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  3. Credit check: This is a search of a person’s repayment history of loans and other debts. How a pastor pays his/her debts says a lot about discipline.

The lawsuit claims despite FBC's efforts to properly vet the minister, it was obvious FBC recognized the wrong person as a church planter.

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(Recommended reading: “What Every Minister Needs to Know About Ordination”) 

Where the FBC fell short with its vetting process

After hearing all of the arguments during the two-week civil trial, the jury came to a rather strange conclusion. It determined that the church-planting pastor was not an employee of the FBC. Yet, the jury also concluded that the pastor was acting on behalf of the FBC when it pastored the new church. Furthermore, the jury said that the FBC was liable because it failed to take one final step.

The FBC failed to check with the churches the pastor worked for previously. In other words, the FBC failed to include a reference check as a part of its vetting process.

The jury noted that the FBC should have called all the other churches that the pastor had worked for in the past and asked if there were any complaints that members or the board had against him. This simple oversight was enough to convince a jury that the FBC was liable.

My opinion

Courts have ruled that organizations can only be held liable for the things they failed to prevent that are “reasonably foreseeable.” In the case above, there was no way for FBC to reasonably suspect that this terrible tragedy could have or would have occurred. Moreover, courts have ruled that there is no “special duty” to go beyond what FBC had already done by completing three different types of background checks.

However, the case teaches that churches need to use great care to ensure proper steps are taken to know a minister’s past before ordaining him/her. 

While background checks are a good way of accomplishing this, one additional step (a reference check) may help the church discover things about one’s history that have not made it to the public records. It is important to know that criminal background checks only reveal if a person has been convicted of a crime, but they do not disclose allegations, or employment history and behavior.

Churches need to use great care to ensure proper steps are taken to know a minister’s past before ordaining him/her.

It is best practice to include reference checks as a part of your ordination process, as well as your church’s hiring process and volunteer program. 

(Recommended reading: “10 Simple Steps to Ensure Legal Ordination”)

3 things your church can do to add protection today

I truly feel this topic is especially important for all pastors, churches, and ordaining bodies. Based on our experience of helping thousands of churches and ministries, we have seen that many have a vision to ordain and license pastors, ministers, and chaplains. 

At the present moment, nondenominational and independent churches are ordaining ministers more than ever before. These are some exciting times within the Body of Christ and, because of this, we recognize the importance of providing churches and ministries with the necessary information to confidently ordain ministers of the gospel.

Here are 3 practical things your church can do today:

  1. Create an ordination program.
  2. Implement thorough background checks for all ministers, employees, and volunteers.
  3. Complete reference checks for all ministers, employees, and volunteers.

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The next step for your church to take

I assume that most of you reading this blog ordain ministers of the gospel or at least plan to in the future. However, my questions to you are:

  • Do you have a specific process in place when you ordain ministers of the gospel? 
  • And, do you properly vet the individuals that your church ordains? 

If your church is planning to ordain ministers in the future, have these thoughts crossed your mind? 

Many ordaining bodies tend to overlook the importance of having a distinct process for ordaining and vetting ministers. For this reason, we teach a crucial, ten-step process for ordination at all of our conferences

We want you to be able to contribute to the growth of God’s Kingdom here on earth and confidently legitimize those that have been called into an ordained or licensed role. In order to do this, it is important to learn from the mistakes that have been made in the past to help ensure that you do not make the same decisions. 

So, what step will you take next?

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