INDIANAPOLIS – A congregation may not be exempt from being sued during this age of litigation, but according to Scott Himsel, a lawyer with the firm of Faegre, Baker and Daniels, congregations can take steps to reduce the risk of being sued.
His hour-long presentation was heard by more than 100 trustees, treasurers and other local church officers responsible for the finance and administration of their congregations. They met for a Saturday morning training event, April 21, at Castleton United Methodist Church.
“There are a number of things we (churches) can do to protect ourselves from being sued,” he said.
The “Big Three” areas of liability for congregations are sexual misconduct, personal injury and personnel problems. “Studies show where you are likely to get into trouble,” he said. His job during the training event was to show congregations how to stay out of trouble in order to protect their primary goal of ministry to their community.
Himsel said sexual misconduct is not just a problem for churches, but for many organizations in our society. “This devastating conduct can upset the rest of one’s life, cause problems in marriage years later and even lead to suicide,” he said.
Sexual misconduct can have a major (negative) impact on the future of a congregation. “Society doesn’t tolerate sexual misconduct anymore, especially in the church,” he said.
Himsel then outlined three realities concerning pedophiles. He said pedophiles need privacy. Many times, victims of pedophiles are reluctant to report acts of sexual misconduct, because they are young, scared and respect people in authority. And finally, the church must be proactive by taking action to prevent sexual misconduct and carefully following what Himsel called the “privacy rule.”
The so-called privacy rule is described at length in Billy Graham’s biography, Just As I Am. More simply put, always be in the presence of others when in ministry. The rule goes hand-in-hand with the fact that “sexual misconduct cannot be done in the presence of others. It’s a private act,” according to Himsel.
Himsel then encouraged church administrators to walk through the space of their entire church building. He then asked a series of questions. Do your Sunday school rooms have glass in the doors? Are computer cubicles exposed? He advised to never place a door if one is not needed. The more open the church architecture is the less likely sexual misconduct will occur, especially with the actions of a pedophile. Make safe space.
Another principle is the “two adult rule.” For any program in the church, Himsel advised that two adults always be present, even on trips away from the church building.
“Talk about sexual misconduct to children and youth so that they know that it is wrong,” he said. Most importantly, practice a zero tolerance standard. “We believe in forgiveness, however sexual misconduct disqualifies one for ministry. Remember that serial pedophiles have multiple victims.”
For local congregations to protect themselves against liability, especially in regard to sexual misconduct, Himsel suggested these guidelines:
- Everyone, both employees and volunteers, needs a background check. Today such checks are both inexpensive and easy to do.
- Interrogate resumes while looking for gaps in moves.
- Check resume references.
- With current employees and volunteers, watch for warning signs, such as people unrelated to the congregation spending more time together at the church.
With liability caused by personal injury, Himsel advised congregations to take preventative measures. He also said adequate insurance is absolutely critical and that the Indiana Conference promotes a good insurance coverage plan.
Preventive measures for churches include:
- Remove risks from the church’s buildings and grounds, by inspecting stairs with skid strips and glass doors. Other areas of risks include parking lots, kitchens, hallways, entrances and rest rooms.
- Hire a good janitor/building engineer.
- Have experienced trustees that keep property in repair.
- Schedule maintenance rather than deferring maintenance.
- Have an emergency plan with set policies. Such as: Who renders first aid? Do you have a plan for severe weather? Who’s in charge in an emergency?
- Be incorporated, otherwise each member and employee of the church can be sued. In Indiana, churches are no longer exempt from suits. The conference offers an incorporation kit on its website www.inumc.org. Click on “Administration.”
When an accident does occur, call your insurance agent and let that agent handle all the details and documentation, Himsel advised. And finally, keep a copy of all insurance policies. A law suit can be made years after an incident, especially in cases of sexual misconduct.
Probably the most potential thorny issues in the life of a congregation revolves around personnel. Himsel said, the church becomes vulnerable because it has a natural trust of individuals, especially the individuals it hires. Yet churches open themselves up to fraud if they don’t have and follow guidelines which protect against fraud.
Such guidelines include:
- Warn against lying on the application and that such conduct can be grounds for immediate dismissal.
- Conduct good evaluations that give candid and honest evaluations.
- Document evaluations.
Himsel also gave guidelines that dealt directly with financial fraud. They include:
- Two signatures on all checks,
- Annual audits,
- Term limits for treasurers, and
- An engaged pastor on money issues.
Other employment issues need to be addressed in an employee handbook. He encouraged churches to have an employee handbook. A sample handbook for local churches is available on the conference website at www.inumc.org. Click on “Administration,” then “Human Resources.”
Following Himsel’s presentation, he and other church finance and administration professionals presented two hour-long workshops about the role of trustees, safety and building inspections, child protection polices, the work of finance committees, treasurer and financial secretary, plus preventing fraud.
This Regional Finance and Administration Training Event will be duplicated at other locations across the state during the next two years. Future events will be announced through district center publications and the Hoosier United Methodist online e-VENTS publication.
In the meantime, if you have issues dealing with church administration, contact Brent Williams, the conference director of Administrative Services at firstname.lastname@example.org. For issues dealing with finance, contact Jennifer Gallagher, conference treasurer and director of Financial Services at email@example.com. Both can be contacted by phone at the Indiana Conference Center by calling 317-924-1321.
“Society doesn’t tolerate sexual misconduct anymore, especially in the church.”
– Scott Himsel