News Articles

Legal knowledge best defense for lawsuits, youth leaders told

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–In an increasingly litigious society, youth ministers need to go the extra mile to protect themselves from potential legal entanglements, a speaker said during the “Culture Shock ’98” youth ministry conference Sept. 14-16 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.
“Insurance companies tell us we have a big bull’s eye on our steeple,” said Bayne Pounds, who teaches Christian education courses at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
While not legally defined, charges of clergy malpractice are becoming all too prevalent, she said. Although full-time pastors can legally perform spiritual counseling without regulation by the state or courts, ministers must be careful to identify when counselees need treatment by licensed mental-health professionals, she said.
Pounds cited an example in which a church spent $250,000 successfully defending itself against charges of clergy malpractice in a case involving a young man who had received ministerial counseling and had committed suicide.
She said lawyers will continue to pursue clergy malpractice cases in the areas of counseling until a court rules in their favor.
“Ever since that time, attorneys who represented the (defendants) recommend to other attorneys that if they have a case against a minister or church and have not yet alleged clergy malpractice to go ahead and throw it in because they hope that somewhere some state will find clergy malpractice to exist and that it will become a precedent.”
To avoid charges of clergy malpractice in the counseling room, Pounds advised ministers to be state-certified before practicing any type of psychological counseling.
She recommended consulting a lawyer to define what type of counseling is protected under law before practicing ministerial counseling. Implementing a two-adult rule in counseling to ensure that a male counselor is not alone with a female counselee is also recommended.
In addition to clergy malpractice, youth ministers need to protect themselves from lawsuits stemming from sexual offenses or negligence, Pounds said.
Noting that the Catholic Church has paid $1 billion in cases involving charges of sexual molestation, Pounds said youth ministers need to carefully select volunteers to help with their youth programs.
“It can occur (in any church) because we are willing to hire and place anybody that is willing to work with minors,” Pounds said. “We act desperate and will provide them immediate and direct access in a trusting, unsupervised environment.”
Pounds suggested conducting extensive background checks on potential youth leaders before entrusting youth to their care. She recommended that new church members not be allowed to work with minors at a church until they have been members for at least six months.
Reporting suspected child abuse is another area where youth ministers need to be especially careful, Pounds said, advising youth ministers to find out how their respective state defines suspected child abuse.
Since the statute of limitations may not expire until a child-abuse victim reaches adulthood, a victim could still have a legal case years later against a minister and church for not reporting the abuse, she said.
Youth ministers, more than any other church staff member, are at risk of being sued for negligence, Pounds added.
She identified several areas that pose potential risks for lawsuits alleging negligence, including unsafe operation of a church vehicle; lack of adult supervision; use of faulty or unsafe facilities and recruitment of volunteers.
“Every Sunday school worker should know that they could be checked on at any moment,” Pounds said.
Churches should provide at least one counselor or adult supervisor for every five minors attending church-sponsored youth events, Pounds said.
She also advised that at least one youth leader be certified by the Red Cross as a lifeguard to supervise water activities, adding that the Red Cross provides legal counsel for their lifeguards in cases when water accidents occur.
She said that by renting vehicles for extended travel, churches free themselves of liability for negligent maintenance of the vehicle. Pound said youth ministers should avoid engaging their teens in high-risk activities such as rappelling and bungee jumping.
Other areas of legal concern for the church include the use of copyrighted materials in music ministries and financial accountability for church funds.

    About the Author

  • Greg Carpenter