We Had a False Sense of Security

Written by Raul Rivera on Feb 25, 2014 in Church Management

They felt pretty sure about the future of their ministry until a lawsuit was filed against the church for 3 million dollars. They had done everything right. They had incorporated their church, created bylaws, and done everything by the book. All was well. Just to be certain, though, they also purchased a 1 million dollar insurance policy to protect the church against liability. This was a pastoral couple from California that I spoke with last year during one of our conferences, and this was the story of their church's struggle to defend itself against a lawsuit filed by a former memb er. As we spoke, it became clear to them that while liability insurance was a good thing, more needed to be done to protect the church. They knew that if the church lost the case, the insurance would only cover a portion of the claim. Where would they get the other 2 million dollars? They said that they had developed a false sense of security just because they had liability insurance.

Another record year for lawsuits against churches

Lawsuits against churches are at an all-time high as more and more litigating attorneys are viewing them as easy targets. Many pastors know that churches share various common goals, and these goals are often the targets of litigators who wish to profit from them. This is not to say that churches have never made mistakes or have never been negligent in any lawsuit. What I mean to say is that most lawsuits brought against churches are completely meritless and are driven by financial gain. Many of the people that sue only do so after their attorneys convince them that they can win the case. Let us look at a few examples of some recent lawsuits brought against churches. We will then look at how litigating attorneys are targeting churches that share the common church goals.

Man sues church because the Spirit overcame him: A man in Tennessee filed a lawsuit against his church, his pastor, and the pastor's wife for 2.5 million dollars. The man claimed he was injured because he was overcome by the Holy Spirit. After responding to the altar call of a visiting minister, the man was overcome by the Spirit and fell back, hitting his head. According to reports by the local news media, the man said he was expecting someone to catch him during the experience, and no one did. He filed a lawsuit demanding that the church pay 2.5 million for medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering. Like most churches, this church felt secure because they had insurance. But the suit sought to recover more than what the insurance covered.
In January, the Florida Baptist Convention was found liable for the actions of one of its church-planting pastors and was ordered to pay 12.5 million dollars to the plaintiff. This case stemmed from a minister that they ordained who later got into trouble with the law. The jury ruled against the Florida Baptist Convention and ordered them to pay an amount above what their insurance covered.

Church gets sued because of how it handled a youth's fall at a church service: A young lady and her parents sued their church, the senior pastor, the youth minister, and other members over how they handled the collapse of the young girl during a spiritual experience. The lawsuit included allegations of negligence, gross negligence, professional negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, assault, battery, loss of consortium, and child abuse.

Why is the Christian church being sued so often?

There are several reasons why many litigating attorneys eagerly encourage and represent individuals in suing churches. As I mentioned earlier, there are some common goals that most churches share, which probably make lawsuits popular. Additionally, the fear of God in America has dwindled to an all-time low, and people view the idea of suing a church no differently than any other type of lawsuit. Below are some of the main reasons why church lawsuits are looked at favorably by litigating attorneys.

  1. Churches prioritize operating debt free: A debt-free church is a strong and healthy church. Many churches do their best to avoid debt, but most incur it when they purchase land and buildings. As soon as a church incurs a mortgage, one of the first things it does is make every effort to pay off the debt on the building. Because of this goal, many churches have a lot of equity, which often becomes an easy target. Unfortunately, many churches that get sued oftentimes get sued for more than what the insurance covers. This can force the church to mortgage its paid off buildings and assets, leaving an insurmountable debt.
  2. Many churches have insurance policies: Church safety policies and procedures are paramount. Historically, most churches have operated with liability insurance policies, but have not done a good job paying attention to safety hazards within buildings or on the property. Because many churches rent worship facilities, they are required by their landlords to have a one million dollar insurance policy, which can often become the target of a lawsuit.
  3. An increasing number of people believe lawsuits are their only way to get rich: A recent poll reveals that at least 15% of Americans believe that the only way to get rich is through an inheritance, a lottery, or a lawsuit. In addition, 41% believe it is harder than ever to prosper in today's society. This new attitude has led many to look at the once unthinkable lawsuit option as viable and normal.

So, what does a church do these days to protect its assets and reduce its exposure to a lawsuit?

We find examples in the Scriptures that give us some guidance. Jesus told His disciples that He was sending them as "sheep among wolves", and that they were to be "shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." He gave this command after granting them authority to go in His name and take the message of the gospel to the world. He uses the phrase "sheep among wolves" because it is important to understand that your innocence of heart will not be enough to protect you. That is why He said to be "shrewd as serpents." The shrewdness of the serpent is probably its most effective trait in avoiding danger. Below are some strategies to help the church better protect itself.

  1. Create policies and procedures that enhance safety: Many churches never consider creating policies and procedures to help better conduct worship services. Due to the increase in lawsuits over the way the church conducts altar calls and the "laying on of hands", consider whether or not your church has policies and procedures  in place to handle unexpected events during spirited worship. Remember, not everyone who comes to your church service has good intentions. At our remaining conferences for 2014, we will give away written policies and procedures for altar calls and the laying on of hands. Your church can adopt and use these to train members.
  2. Form a holdings corporation: I believe that one of the best strategies a church can employ is to create a tax-exempt holdings corporation to hold title to the church's property and assets. A holdings corporation is an entity controlled by the church, and its only purpose is to own the church's assets. It never does business with the outside world, and neither does it receive donations. A holdings corporation simply owns and holds the church's assets to protect them from lawsuits and other outside intrusions. Being shrewd, yet gentle, certainly applies because the church has the opportunity to wisely protect its assets in the unfortunate event of a lawsuit. We discuss this topic at all of our conferences because it has become such a necessity in today's society. We teach you how it is possible to move the church's assets to the holdings corporation and still use them for the church's purposes. We also teach you how a church can receive offerings and other designated gifts for a building campaign and then transfer them to the holdings corporation so that they are protected.
  3. Make safety a priority at the church: Have you ever spent time carefully examining your building for potential hazards? Do you have no-slip floor mats at the entrance and solid railing on stairs? Have you ever thought about the importance of check-in procedures for Children's Church? You will be amazed at how many items you will identify if you simply spend some time thinking about it.

The gospel will continue to grow unhindered

While we as leaders in the church have to deal with many challenges that can potentially eliminate our ministries, the Lord will always continue to give us the tools necessary to rise above them. I am confident that more and more churches are becoming aware of these challeneges and are preparing themselves. The California couple with whom I spoke is restructuring their foundation so that when the lawsuit becomes a thing of the past, they will be ready for any further challenges.

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.

Raul Rivera

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