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Member Sues Church After Altercation

By Stephen

Imagine during Sunday service a member of your congregation is yelling, screaming, and even threatening one of your pastors or other members of the congregation. One of the congregants asks the disruptive person to leave and not return. However, at the next Sunday service, the disruptive person has returned and is even more enraged. 

That's what happened in one church in Kansas. The incident led to a lawsuit filed by the member against the church.

Are you and your team prepared to overcome the obstacles of managing disruptive behaviors or disturbances during church services or events held at the church?

One of the most important parts of preparation for this type of issue is having clearly written bylaws and policies in place to protect you and your team. 

Disruptive member in a Kansas church 

Recently, a church in Kansas had to overcome the obstacles of a disruptive member. Due to the church’s well-written bylaws, both the trial court and appellate court found the church was not liable for the use of reasonable physical force by an usher in restraining a woman during a church service who was making threats against the pastor. (See court case First Church v. Nowak, 209 P.3d 764 (Kan. App. 2009)).

In Kansas, a church member had a dispute with her church regarding a stained glass window committee. After the church removed her from the committee, she resigned her membership from the church. The former member continued to make numerous contacts by phone and letter to the leadership, members of the church, and reached out to the entire congregation. The tone of the messages varied from apologetic to abusive. Most of the messages concerned the former member’s belief that church leaders, especially the pastor, had lied about her.

Some of the contacts could be taken as threatening or, at least, disturbing. Noted in this specific case, the former member went to the church to confront the pastor. They had a brief conversation, and then the pastor asked her to leave. The former member got so upset and even yelled at the pastor. She then hit him three times on the arm and then left.

A few months later, she showed up at the church on a Sunday morning just as the worship service was concluding. Four deacons and ushers formed a barricade to prevent her from following them into the sanctuary. She apparently tried, unsuccessfully, to push past them. She then yelled at the pastor through the sanctuary doors. When the pastor did not respond, the former member turned and began yelling to church members who were still standing in the lobby. An usher who happened to have a military background was concerned by the former member's behavior and was not sure what she might attempt to do next. 

The usher used his military experience to restrain the former member in a way that would cause brief pain but would not cause any permanent injury. As soon as she agreed to leave, the usher immediately let go of her. He held her arms for about 15 to 20 seconds. The former member did not have any bruises, nor did she need  medical attention after the incident, but the usher did resolve the altercation. Following the incident, the church sought a restraining order, prohibiting the former member from entering the church property or contacting staff or members of the church. 

What did the courts have to say?

According to the case of First Church v. Nowak, the former member filed a lawsuit against the church and usher for battery after receiving the restraining order. The former member stated the usher had committed battery against her while attempting to restrain her and remove her from the church. The trial court dismissed the battery claim. The former member appealed, but the appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

The appellate court noted that the church's bylaws specifically outlined that its ushers were to assist in maintaining "a worshipful atmosphere in the church," and, among other duties, were to "take care of any disruption or emergency situation during services" and restore "the sanctuary to physical orderliness following each service."

The appellate courts also noted that the usher's belief that his job was to "help keep the peace in the church" and to diffuse a disorderly situation should one arise. His belief that some force was necessary to terminate the former member’s intrusion was found to be reasonable, as was his belief that a further verbal request would be useless. 

The former member did admit during the trial that she was furious and shouting, and the amount of force used was reasonable.

The appellate court judge noted that a church, like any property owner, has the right to determine who can access its premises. When your team is prepared for situations involving disruptive behavior, you can feel confident the courts are on your side.

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Steps to help mitigate serious issues or disturbances 

Many churches have encountered disruptive individuals during the services of church-led functions. Often, the church ushers are the first responders, but they often are unsure what actions are appropriate and may be fearful of legal reprisals if physical force is exerted. 

According to the Kansas court ruling, churches do not have to tolerate persons who disrupt their services. This case illustrates that physical force may be legally justified in such cases, if reasonable, in light of all the circumstances. Unfortunately, without policies and procedures in place, we often see these decisions in handling disruptive behavior made in the moment in the midst of a crisis. This can lead to accidents, injuries, and further disruption of the service. 

Here are some helpful options for church leaders to consider when preparing for handling disruptive behavior:

  • Call the police first. This is often the best option.
  • Some churches use a police officer as a security guard during worship services. The officer will be able to confront a disruptive person with minimal to no liability for the church. Other churches may choose to create their own security team. Check out our blog, “Do Churches Need Security Teams?” to learn more.
  • If someone is threatening to inflict physical harm or to disrupt a worship service, and the church does not have a security guard, then immediate intervention by church staff may be necessary. Physically restraining such a person should always be viewed as a last resort. More than one person should be involved in the restraint so that unfounded allegations of brutality can be refuted.
  • In some cases, church leaders may be able to avoid such incidents by obtaining a restraining order from a local court.
  • Ushers and all staff members should periodically receive training on these issues.

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Relationships matter

Strong relationships with local law enforcement do make a difference. Perhaps the most cost-effective tactic is to network with people inside and outside of your church. Law enforcement will be a great resource when setting up staff and volunteer training on topics such as handling disruptive behaviors, managing crisis situations, and maintaining overall safety and security of the church. Many churches have requested an off duty officer to volunteer their time to help assist in training staff on safety protocols.

As churches, we seem to have a tendency to operate in silos. We need to break out of that stigma and have active communication with other churches and local law enforcement. 

Communication should extend beyond your local faith community. Contact the local police department to share your church's schedule of activities. By giving them details such as when lights should or shouldn't be on inside or outside the building, police can watch for any suspicious activity around the church building when they make their patrols. 

Many churches invite law enforcement to occasionally use the church parking lot as a place for officers to park and monitor activities in the neighborhood. This strong community relationship guarantees the safety of the church, and if any disturbances happen, the law enforcement officer is already familiar with the facility and the key members of the church.

It's encouraged that church leaders set up regular meetings with key law enforcement personnel to express specific concerns, such as copper theft, vandalism, burglaries, car prowls, and staff safety. It also suggested that officers check all around the building on all shifts. Also, if your church does not have its own security staff, it’s recommended to reach out to local law enforcement to get assistance. This way, officers on duty at the church can confront any disruptive incidents with minimal to no liability for the church.

Simple plans create a safer environment

Following these simple steps can help your church create an effective safety plan for disruptive behavior issues that may occur. An incident-free service or event is an enjoyable one. And in the event of any issues or disturbances, your team is fully prepared and ready to handle such a situation.

Whether you host Sunday morning services or community outreach events, having a plan for disruptive behavior in place creates a safe environment for everyone in attendance. Also, having a well-prepared staff makes dealing with any issue more effective and lowers the church’s liability. 

Similarly, it is just as important to have the right plan in place for your church’s legal foundation, no matter if you just started or your church has been around for several years.

If you are wondering what steps are needed to strengthen or update your church or ministry’s bylaws and policies, give us a call today at (770) 638-3444. Or, click the button below to have a specialist call you. We’d be happy to help!

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