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03 May 2018

Pastor, You Can't Say That

Raul Rivera

I want to share with you an area that pastors rarely consider when it comes to speaking from the pulpit.

For instance, have you ever given thought to defamation? 

By definition, defamation is classified as anything you say or write about another person that is found to be false, or that injures the other person. The definition sounds simple, but leave it to a court and the definition becomes much more broad. 

Many courts consider valid the argument brought up by some who say, "The church said it about me just to bring me injury." 

A church in Southern California and its pastor were sued for statements made concerning a woman (respondent) whose actions were described as, "cursing . . . being hateful as a human being could be . . . and [acting] as one of the major enemies of God's Church." 

The respondent sued the church and its pastor in court for "[defamation], intentional infliction of severe emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and conspiracy . . ."

In the end, the respondent was awarded $260,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages.

An appellate court* ended up reversing the decision; however, this case serves as a warning that what pastors say from the pulpit matters.

As a pastor, the day will come, if it has not already, when you will have to deal with the actions of church members. And how you handle such situations requires wisdom in order to avoid defamatory comments.

I want to introduce to you 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.

5 ways to avoid defamation from the pulpit

1. Only announce matters of common interest

The behavior of one member of the church 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 allows 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 protective language, then I recommend you consider making an amendment to include it.

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

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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?” 

Consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • 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 someone else’s testimony in your sermon or teaching.

Before sharing another’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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*Sources:

McNair v. Worldwide Church of God, 197 Cal. App. 3d 363, 242 Cal. Rptr. 823 (1987)

Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Blessings,
Raul Rivera

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About the Author

Church Planter. Speaker. Author. CEO. Raul Rivera has had ample experience in the church planting world. His current venture, StartCHURCH, has helped 1000's of churches to start right. Raul has compiled an array of manuals and software tools that help churches stay compliant with the IRS. He also hosts over 35 national conferences per year, training pastors on how to launch their churches. Raul is married to his wife Genel, and they and their five children live in Atlanta, GA.