Three Legal Land Mines for Ministries

Lawsuits and ministry are two words you typically don’t see together, but sadly, church leaders must think about the possible reality of a lawsuit and be proactive to ensure their ministry remains effective and free of legal woes. Lawsuits against churches have increased over 2,000% since 1992.

Regardless of your staff’s size, it’s important to keep these three best practices in mind:

  1. As long as your ministry is led by people, you need structure.
    This discipline doesn’t mean your ministry becomes a time card machine, but it is important that a clear set of protocols is in place so everyone knows the “rules.” Those guides may include expectations for arrival, paid time off accruals, childcare guidelines, and how to engage congregation leadership.

    What’s the legal land mine? Consistency. Without clear guidelines, staff will interpret their understanding of what is expected. And let’s face it, that interpretation will likely be different from person to person which makes it impossible to manage consistently and fairly across the board. That alone is the starting point for potential legal issues.

  2. Performance coaching and discipline are a part of life – even ministry life.
    A huge trap for a ministry leader is the tendency to avoid those difficult discussions with staff members who are struggling with performance. While it’s typically true that your staff leadership are involved in the ministry because of God’s calling on their lives, that calling alone does not mean unmet expectations don’t sometimes occur.

    As a leader–and regardless of your ministry focus–it is important to set clear expectations and provide the necessary coaching to keep everyone on track. Simply “praying about it” doesn’t automatically correct problems. Capturing those conversations in some way is important as well. Sure, coaching is done through a spiritual lens but it must occur nonetheless.

    What’s the legal land mine? If discipline or worse, a termination must occur, the steps leading to a decision provide the backup if those decisions are contested.

  3. Someone really does need to be tracking your ministry data.
    While most churches (of any size) typically track ministry donations, the data referenced in this land mine goes beyond the financials. In the heightened environment of predatory behavior, as a church you have a responsibility to protect those you minister to.

    Churches are volunteer-led which means an unknown element of backgrounds, motives and associations may exist. Even in situations with the best intentions, it is important to have a system in place that 1) outlines requirements for anyone desiring to work with children and students, 2) includes a background verification process and 3) provides a reporting channel for any concerns.

    What’s the legal land mine? You pray it never enters your ministry, but harassment or even violence can get a footing in areas where safeguards are not present.

While churches are focused on spreading the hope of Christ to their communities, it is vital to remember the importance of smart strategies that keep the operation of the ministry above reproach, and with limited legal risk. Gone are the days of thinking, “that could never happen here.”

Does the Lord bless His work? Absolutely. But He also asks us to lead well and wisely. These three best practices are a good starting point for any ministry desiring an effective work.

Important Note: This article is provided as information only and is not intended nor should it be construed as legal advice. Always check with an attorney on these important matters as laws vary from state to state.

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