How to Protect Your Church from Lawsuits

The risk of litigation should never impede the ministries of the church, but to ignore the very real dangers would be naive and equally wrong.

How can you make sure that your church employees won't hurt someone and render the church liable in the process? Your church can take some steps to greatly increase the safety and responsibility of its employees and reduce the church's exposure to legal liability. The risk of litigation should never impede the ministries of the church, but to ignore the very real dangers would be naive and equally wrong.

Pastors and church leaders must understand risks and take appropriate steps to avoid them.

  • Educate your staff and volunteers.
  • Regularly discuss safety issues and concerns.
  • Help your team develop a sense of caution and prudence.
Seven vital areas
  • Employee Job Descriptions
  • Church safety
  • High-risk activities
  • Children and youth workers
  • Reports to authorities
  • Counseling situations
  • Insurance

1. Employee job descriptions

Adopt clear position descriptions for all employees. A job description can assist a church in avoiding liability for an employee who was unauthorized to act beyond the scope of his or her job. For more help, check Church Administration: Creating Efficiency for Effective Ministry or Church Officer and Committee Guidebook.

2. Church Safety

Adopt a church safety policy.

Make sure this policy specifically states that all employees and volunteers are required to exercise caution at all times. Such a policy will help reinforce the regular safety education that you provide.

Assess your property for potential accidents.

Regularly take a careful walk through your church looking for potential hazards. View the church premises not from the perspective of a healthy adult, but from that of an elderly church member or one who is visually impaired or uses a walker or cane. Such inspections should be a regular part of the maintenance of the church.

Remove or repair all potential physical hazards.

If a hazard cannot be reasonably repaired or removed, then provide adequate warning. Request immediate feedback from your congregation whenever a dangerous condition is discovered. When you receive such a complaint, act quickly and fix the hazard.

3. High-risk activities

Avoid sponsoring high-risk activities. Examples of high risk activities: paint-ball, rock climbing, rappelling, snow skiing, scuba diving, surfing, and hang gliding.

If your church does sponsor a high-risk activity, educate all participants and the parents of participating children about the associated risks. Obtain an "Assumption of Risk Waiver," which should include the following.

  • The name of the activity
  • A description of the activity and the potential risks
  • A certification that a child participant is physically capable of engaging in the activity
  • A consent form to be signed by the participant or the parent or guardian of a participating young person
  • An acknowledgment that the person or parent has had the risks of the activity explained to them, understands the risks, and assumes the risk of injury from engaging in the activity
  • A medical consent form allowing treatment in the event of injury or illness.

Consult your church's lawyer about the limits of these waivers.

4. Children and youth workers

Screen both employees and volunteers

Have all potential employees and volunteers who will work with children and youth complete a screening application. It should include name, address, birth date, Social Security number, previous employment for the past five years, a list of references and information on whether the applicant has a criminal history. Thoroughly investigate the information provided in the screening application.

Require a waiting period before allowing new members to work with children or youth. Require a minimum length of time for church membership (perhaps six months) before any person is eligible to work with children or youth.

Use a buddy system for all children and youth workers so they are never alone with young people, particularly overnight.

Require that there be no unsupervised cross-gender contact. For instance, don't allow a male youth worker to be alone with a female member of a youth group under any circumstance.

Immediately investigate and confront any inappropriate behavior. Take whatever corrective action is warranted.

Have an adequate number of adult supervisors for each activity. Possible child-adult ratios for church preschool Sunday School and off-campus youth activities:

  • Babies Ratio: Children/Worker 2-1
  • Ones Ratio: Children/Worker 3-1
  • Twos Ratio: Children/Worker 3-1
  • Threes-Pre-K Ratio: Children/Worker 4-1
  • Kindergarten Ratio: Children/Worker 5-1
  • Youth Activity Ratio: Youth/Workers 8-1
Consult your church's attorney for help in ratios and all aspects of the screening process, including the questions you ask, the forms you use, and the confidential records you maintain.

5. Reports to authorities

  • Report potential and actual violence or abuse.
  • In situations in which you reasonably believe a crime of violence or sexual abuse will be committed, take immediate action to notify the appropriate authorities.
  • If an abuse has been committed against a child, you will most likely be required under your state law to report it to local authorities.
  • Even if your state does not have mandatory reporting laws, you should report such an incident anyway to protect the abused child from further harm and protect other potential victims.

The Georgia Baptist Convention Church Financial Services Department has a wealth of information and free forms: Child Abuse Prevention

6. Counseling situations

Do not present yourself as a professional or licensed counselor unless you have received psychological training and licensing from an accredited institution. 
  • Take all threats and discussions of suicide seriously.
  • Refer a potentially suicidal person to a qualified professional for immediate help. Document your recommendations to the person in written form at the time they are made, and follow up to see that he or she gets adequate help. Check this article_ Protecting Teenagers from Suicide

7. Insurance

  • Maintain adequate insurance coverage.
  • Periodically engage an attorney who is knowledgeable in insurance and liability matters to review your coverage.

Check with your insurance carrier to see if your church is covered in the event of a claim of clergy malpractice.

The Georgia Baptist Convention Church Finance Services Department has some excellent free forms on their website: Church Insurance Checklist. The forms include "Insurance Definitions" and "What Kind of Insurance Coverage Does Our Church have?"

These suggestions are not meant to be exhaustive but are intended to get you started thinking about the risks your church faces and how to avoid them. The best advice, however, is to seek the Lord's wisdom in prayer. Faithfully and diligently do whatever the Lord lays on your heart to do for the church's protection.

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.