Church Law Group

Practicing What We Preach

Mediation and Litigation – The world is a place of conflict

Church ministry is not easy. While the Church, through its staff and its members, will try to model good scripturally-based behavior, there will inevitably be conflict. This could be an employment dispute where a Church employee alleges that he/she has been the victim of discrimination or harassment. It could be a dispute between staff members about areas of control or responsibility. It could be from a former or current member who alleges he/she was mistreated by the Church. It could be from a third-party who claims the Church owes him/her money or was responsible for an injury. In the more extreme example, we have seen church “civil wars” with competing groups claiming to have control of the Church. In every example, the Church has a variety of possible reactions from ignoring the problem in hopes it will go away to a full-blown lawsuit.

Our experience tells us the best way to deal with conflicts is to try to prevent them from ever developing. This can be accomplished through good policies and procedures that are not only written out, but actually followed. When conflict does arise, it is best to deal with it immediately. We encourage our Church clients to adopt alternative faith-based conflict resolution as the policy of the Church. This needs to be included in the Church governance documents, employment agreements, handbook, contracts and anywhere else where the policy can be restated. This alternative process, accomplished as a mediation or arbitration, has the best prospect for a mutually-acceptable resolution. It is private, it is faster than conventional lawsuits, and tends to save the Church a great deal of money.

In the instances in which the Church cannot avoid being involved in a lawsuit, we are prepared to assist in developing and implementing a strategy and to make sure the Church is given a fair hearing. Most jurisdictions allow “discovery” whereby the Church’s private business affairs are made public. We can address that as well.

Seven Questions about your Church’s Dispute/Conflict Resolution policies:

  1. Does your Church have Alternative Dispute Resolution as its written policy? What is that policy? Who will provide those services? Is it faith-based or secular?
  2. Do the Church employees have a good understanding of the Church policy? Or, would they believe themselves to be compelled to file a lawsuit to get their complaints heard?
  3. Can the Church require third-party vendors to agree to Alternative Dispute Resolution rather than going to court?
  4. Are there any pending, threatened, or anticipated claims against the Church? Could anything be done to address them?
  5. Can Church employees, officers, or directors be sued personally for church-related business or activities? Has the Church properly protected them?
  6. What kind of insurance is available to settle claims? Is it enough? Are there other policies the Church should consider?
  7. What are the reputation and media considerations? How can the Church protect itself? How can the Church make sure it doesn’t lose members?

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