How Do You Prevent Your Church From Being Sued?

By Jeff Johnson

The simple answer is that you can’t. There is nothing you can do to make your church immune from suit. (The same is true for your business and yourself.) However, there are steps you can take to make your church safer. And, ultimately, that is the more important goal. The good news is that the safer your church is, the less likely it is to be sued successfully. Here are four basic steps to a safer church.

1) Communicate with your insurance company

Too many churches only reach out to their liability insurer after something goes wrong. Be proactive. It’s a good idea to evaluate your coverage needs at least annually. You may want to do that shortly before the church sets its budget each year. More than that, your insurance company probably has guidelines and best practices for many church activities that will not only help you know that you are covered in case of an accident but will also help you avoid accidents in the first place. These guidelines might address everything from the proper use of candles in a Christmas Eve service to which games to avoid during Vacation Bible School. (“Red Rover” comes to mind.)

2) Create safety policies that you clearly communicate and consistently keep

Your church needs written policies about areas where safety is paramount. Examples include:

  • Working with kids, teenagers, and people with special needs.
  • Use of church vehicles.
  • Food preparation and handling.
  • Counseling.
  • Reporting allegations of abuse—whether it happened at church or not.

These policies are too important to leave to chance. Don’t rely on templates you happen to find on the internet. Your insurance company may have forms that they prefer you to use. Consult with an attorney. And once you have a policy in place, don’t leave it tucked away in some forgotten corner of your website or in the church office. Review it with your leaders and volunteers regularly. And, of course, you must consistently follow your own policy. Your goal is to do better, not know better. Having a safety policy you don’t keep is like a life vest you don’t wear.

3) Screen and train your leaders and volunteers

There is a place for everyone at church. But that place is not the nursery, the kitchen stove, or behind the wheel of the bus. Do you know the people you’re putting in charge of safety? Do they know what they’re expected to do? Without proper screening and training, you can’t be sure. At a minimum, you need criminal background checks for every single person who will work with minors or vulnerable adults in any capacity. You also need a driver history for everyone operating a church-owned vehicle or a private vehicle used for church activities. Don’t let new members serve in sensitive areas right away; allow enough time for the church to evaluate their character and competence first. Once you’ve selected someone for service, provide the training that they need. In addition to your insurance company, there are many agencies that can provide free or low-cost safety training resources. These may include your denominational organization, local law enforcement, schools and universities, and advocacy groups.

4) Identify, plan, and prepare

Identify potential danger spots—on your campus and in your calendar. Create an action plan to address those dangers. And then take the steps needed to carry out that plan. First, identify the risks: Is the playground equipment in good repair? Is there enough tread on the van tires? Are there holes in the lawn? Uneven steps leading to the balcony? Walk the grounds regularly to look for these sorts of hazards. Also, consider what your various ministries are planning for the coming months. Is the youth group going on a midnight scavenger hunt downtown? Is the children’s choir going on a concert tour in another state? Is your men’s ministry organizing a skeet shoot? You don’t have to eliminate all activities that carry any risk. But you must identify the potential dangers. Second, create a plan to address those dangers. Not every plan has to be complex. It may only take a few minutes to fill a hole. Other scenarios will require more thought: Who will be in charge? Who else needs to be involved? Does each person understand their role? What specific things should each individual do? How will everyone know what is happening? Your plan should address all these aspects, and you must communicate that plan to each member of the team. Finally, once your plan is finalized, prepare by gathering the resources and setting up an environment for safety. Don’t short-circuit the process. Preparation may seem like a pain at the time, but going forward with unsafe facilities or activities could cause a lot more hurt.

If your church is ever sued, the court is likely to use a reasonableness standard to assess whether you were negligent in causing an injury. Would this danger have been foreseeable to a reasonable person? Would a reasonable person have taken preventive steps? Would a reasonable person have responded to the danger in this way? While no one can guarantee 100% safety in any situation, following the guidelines above will go a long way in making sure that your church has reasonably done what it can to protect those who are trusted to its care.