7 Ways to Limit Legal Liability in a Church

The heart-felt desire of every godly pastor is to do the work God has called him to do—preach the gospel, disciple new Christians, study God’s Word, prepare biblical messages, equip the church family for the work of the ministry, and serve as an undershepherd of God’s people.

And the Christlike desire of every faithful undershepherd is to protect the flock from “grievous wolves” (Acts 20:29) who would seek to destroy to God’s people—either by leveling false accusations or, worse, bringing actual harm through false doctrine or abusive actions.

But too often, pastors are naive in their role as protectors. When this happens, wolves in sheep’s clothing more easily gain entrance into the church.

How can pastors and churches be the guards they should be to protect the flock? Here are seven suggestions:

1. Lay hands suddenly on no man.

Be cautious before appointing someone to a position of spiritual leadership in the church. This is a direct instruction from 1 Timothy 5:22: “Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.”

It is wise to first prove leaders. It’s easy for someone to give verbal assurances of their love for others and capability to lead—but it’s not as easy to over time prove evidence of a consistent testimony, godly walk, and real, viable fruit. When it came to appointing the first deacons, the apostles told the church to find men who were “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:3). We should do the same.

Having a period of waiting before appointing someone to leadership not only allows the pastor or ministry leader time to make a wise decision, but it also tends to deter those who are hoping for easy access to abuse others through an appointed position of leadership.

2. Honor fire safety and transportation laws of your state.

Most laws are not written with the intent to limit the ministry of a local church. They are written to protect citizens from safety hazards. Do your best then to cooperate with state laws. Get building permits before construction, keep your vans or buses inspected. Simply put, comply with the laws, and keep good records of that compliance.

3. Report any known crime against a child whether on or off your campus.

Immediately. Besides the fact that there are laws about mandatory reporting, it is important that we protect the vulnerable and defenseless. Do not take it upon yourself to investigate crime and try to counsel and restore perpetrators. Report to authorities, and then provide counsel and help as you are allowed to the victims and repentant abusers complying with the authorities.

4. Do background checks on all children’s workers.

In addition to requiring that new children’s volunteers have been faithful members of Lancaster Baptist Church for a minimum of six months (see point 1 above), we also require a sit-down interview and background check with every volunteer before they begin. We ask if there is any history of allegation or crime in their past. We take (and file) notes of the interview. And we require a background check on everyone who works with minors.

5. Have financials reviewed or audited by a CPA.

This not only helps guard against embezzling, but it provides accountability for staff and ministry leaders in spending, encourages the keeping of thorough records, and protects the church’s testimony.

6. Call all references and research all new hires.

I am amazed at pastors who, aware of a moral problem with a staff member, quietly pass him on to another church. I am likewise amazed at churches who allow a pastor with moral failings to go to another ministry without ever alerting that ministry. When you are preparing to hire someone, actually call their references. Ask the references specific questions regarding the person’s financial and moral background. Consider if there are missing references you should reach out to. You don’t have to be the gestapo, but a staff applicant with a clear testimony and a love for the local church will be glad for your desire to thoroughly research before hiring.

7. Set and follow policies for counseling.

We have set policies that women counsel women (except in a marital counseling setting where both the husband and wife are present). I know there are those who mock such a policy, but I also know there have been allegations and abuse in counseling at churches that would not have taken place with this policy. All counseling should be biblical, and each session should be documented.

Having policies and procedures for ministry, such as the seven suggested here, is not limiting—it is freeing. Yes, some of them require a little extra time and even financial investment. But they go a long way toward protecting your church from both liability and crime and, therefore, provide greater freedom to serve the Lord and to minister to people with His Word.

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