|Lawsuits in the ChurchThis article originally appeared in the April 1995 issue of New Horizons, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination.by Ken Sande, Founder of Peacemaker MinistriesBy all accounts, America has become the most litigious society on the face of the earth. In the last decade, civil caseloads have increased by 33 percent, which is five times faster than the increase in our population. As a result, new case filings in state courts now exceed 100 million per year. This amounts to one court case for every two adults in the United States!This surge in litigation is being driven by several factors. To begin with, a lawsuit is often seen as an easy path to instant wealth. In a recent survey, hundreds of Americans were asked how they might become independently wealthy. A generation ago, typical answers would have included, “build a successful business,” “patent a valuable invention,” or “inherit my uncle’s estate.” These answers hardly appeared on the recent survey. Instead, the two most common answers were, “win the lottery,” or “win a big lawsuit.” In other words, many people view an injury as a blessing, because it gives them a shot at a million dollar lawsuit.
Another thing that drives litigation is the American preoccupation with individual rights. If we want something badly enough we begin to think that we have a legal right to it, whether it’s a government entitlement or a particular job. And above all else, we think we have the right never to be inconvenienced or offended by others.
These attitudes are reflected in many of the ridiculous lawsuits being filed in our courts. For example, a poodle traveling in a pet cage was accidently removed from an airplane in Tampa instead of its real destination, Miami. The error was soon discovered and the poodle was safely delivered to its owners only a few hours late. But the owners were so distressed by the incident that they felt justified in suing the airline for $50,000 to relieve their “emotional suffering.”
These kinds of lawsuits bring to light another factor in our litigation problem: the attorneys who are willing to advocate such absurd complaints. There are over 840,000 lawyers in America today. Although most of them are dedicated and conscientious professionals, there are far too many who will take almost any case in order to stay in business. Their low standards, combined with the greed and self-indulgence of certain clients, creates just the right mixture for a thoroughly clogged court system.
The Church’s Failure
But there is a fourth significant factor, which is often overlooked, that contributes to our country’s problem with litigation: the failure of the church to carry out its God-given mission to teach people how to respond to conflict in a godly manner. As Chief Justice Warren Burger observed,
One reason our courts have become overburdened is that Americans are increasingly turning to the courts for relief from a range of personal distresses and anxieties. Remedies for personal wrongs that once were considered the responsibilities of institutions other than the courts are now boldly asserted as legal “entitlements.” The courts have been expected to fill the void created by the decline of church, family, and neighborhood unity.1
After serving as a full-time Christian conciliator for almost thirteen years, I must agree with Justice Burger’s indictment of the church. I have found very few churches that are providing systematic, biblical teaching on conflict resolution. Therefore, when disputes arise, Christians are often just as willing to file a lawsuit as are their unsaved neighbors. Worse yet, church leaders are all too willing to violate 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, as they, too, go to court to solve problems within the church.
I have personally witnessed these failures time after time. For example, when a church refused to pay its pastor extra compensation for the work he did to remodel his own study, he sued his own church. Another pastor, who did not get a promotion he wanted, sued his denomination for age discrimination. A missionary couple found life in the field to be too stressful; they not only abandoned their mission but also sued their denomination for failing to prepare them properly for the mission field. And just last year I was involved in a case in which the trustees of a church brought a lawsuit against their own elders because of a disagreement over church government.
In my opinion, the church’s failure to educate its people on biblical conflict resolution has significantly contributed to the general flood of lawsuits in this country. This failure has also left the church fully exposed to being sued its own members. Lawsuits that would have been unthinkable a decade ago are now commonplace, as church members sue their own congregations for alleged breaches of confidentiality, for failing to prevent suicides, for discharging ineffective employees, or for exercising church discipline.
Even when churches win these cases, they usually pay an enormous price in legal costs, lost time and energy, and adverse media attention. And when a church loses, it can suffer damages awards in the millions of dollars, which can easily exceed insurance coverage and take away assets the congregation worked for decades to obtain. And in a surprising number of cases, the pastors and elders of a church have been found to be personally liable for damages awards, notwithstanding the church’s status as a nonprofit corporation.
But there is an even higher price we pay for our failure to equip church members to respond to conflict biblically. Even when disputes among Christians do not result in a lawsuit, they often create divisions within a church, undermine vital ministries, and sap the energy from our labors for Christ. Many church committees never learn cooperative problem solving, so minor differences easily distract them from their work. Church families are also weakened by the inability to deal with conflict biblically, and all too many are eventually torn apart by divorce.
On a larger scale, we allow insignificant doctrinal differences to break our fellowship and cooperative ministry with neighboring churches and denominations. So instead of slamming against the gates of hell as a solid, unified, and well-coordinated army of Christian churches, we are only able to sporadically tap against the enemy’s fortress with weak, uncoordinated, and ineffective efforts.
In summary, we are not presenting the world with the kind of love and unity that demonstrates the reality of a loving Father and resurrected Savior (see John 13:34-35; 17:20-23). We are allowing unresolved conflict to rob us of our testimony, thereby giving the world yet another reason to blaspheme God and mock His church (see Rom. 2:24).
That’s the bad news. The good news is that for a Christian it is never too late to start doing what’s right. With God’s help, every deficiency noted above can be remedied. Instead of being an occasion for failure, conflict can be turned into an opportunity to glorify God, to serve others, and to grow to be like Christ. In order to achieve these results, work must usually be done on two major fronts. To begin with, we need to teach our members how to respond to conflict biblically as individuals. At the same time, most churches need to upgrade their policies and practices to protect themselves from devastating lawsuits. This process may be divided into six distinct steps. (For more detail, please see the Peacemaking Church section of www.Peacemaker.net.)
Six Steps for Self-protection
First, we need to teach personal peacemaking principles and skills to the adults and children in our churches. With such training, the vast majority of conflicts within the church can be quickly resolved between those who are involved in a dispute. This educational effort may take place through sermons, Sunday school classes, home schooling, Christian schools, and home Bible studies.
Second, church leaders and other gifted believers should be trained to serve as Christian conciliators within their congregations. Then, when a dispute cannot be resolved just between disputing parties, these conciliators may step in (as instructed by Matthew 18:16 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-8) to offer godly counsel, serve as mediators, or even provide an arbitrated decision.
Third, most churches need to recommit themselves to the ministry of church discipline. Then, if a member refuses to resolve a dispute in a biblical manner, the church will be prepared to intervene, in the spirit of Matthew 18:17-20, to promote repentance, reconciliation, and justice.
Fourth, most churches need to improve their membership policies, a process which usually includes rewriting bylaws and clarifying guidelines on church discipline. (As detailed as the OPC’s Book of Church Order is, it does not provide all of the guidance we need for full legal protection.) By carefully explaining membership privileges and responsibilities to people before they join a church, churches can secure informed consent to their conflict resolution practices, including church discipline. Such consent serves as the best legal protection against future complaints that a church violated a person’s privacy or caused undue emotional distress while dealing with a conflict.
Fifth, all churches should make a greater effort to ensure that they are following certain basic legal practices. These practices include being properly incorporated, having appropriate insurance, using conciliation clauses in all agreements, using permission slips and release forms, and getting all important agreements in writing.
Finally, churches should implement special policies to prevent the most common lawsuits that are brought against churches today. These policies should deal with the control of church property, confidentiality of church records, counseling guidelines, reporting child abuse, screening and supervising youth workers to prevent abuse, and employment practices.
This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But facing a lawsuit is a hundred times more burdensome. Every one of the steps described above has been implemented at my church over the past two years, and we are unquestionably a stronger church because of it. Our exposure to devastating legal liabilities has been dramatically reduced. More importantly, our people are now well-equipped to solve their personal and family conflicts, which means that the elders have far less conciliation work to do. And when the elders do need to get involved in a dispute, our people are not surprised or offended: they know that such involvement is simply part of being involved in a church family. Our members are also better prepared to deal with conflict in the work place and in their neighborhoods, which strengthens their Christian witness.
As our Lord promised, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” We have experienced that blessing again and again over the past two years, and we thank God when others notice it and want to know how they too can experience it.
1 Justice Warren Burger, “Annual Report on the State of the Judiciary,” American Bar Association Journal (March 1982), p. 68.
Ken Sande is the founder of Peacemaker Ministries.