Churches: Don’t Let Your Lawyers Write Your Testimony

November 30, 2010

Tuesday Re-mix –

One of my kids attended a week-long camp last summer which happens to have been held on the campus of a prominent Baptist university.  The university doesn’t sponsor the camp.  They just contract with the sponsoring organization which actually operates the camp.  The university’s only part in the endeavor is to provide the facilities.  So, as I was filling out the paperwork for the camp,  there was a release which the university required to be signed by every participant.  No surprise there.  As an attorney who  makes a living representing corporations, churches and other organizations, I would recommend some type of release be obtained.  But here is some of the pertinent language in the release:

“I release [prominent Christian university]…from all claims…caused by the negligence of [prominent Christian university] [or] its regents, officers or employees…”

This is what we lawyers call an “express negligence” clause in the contract.  It is designed to escape liability even for your own negligent acts.  Allow me to translate this for you.  This says that, if a university employee assaults my daughter while that employee is on the job for the university, neither the university nor the employee will be responsible for it.  If the university’s administration is all aware of a building about to fall down on their campus and chooses to do nothing about it and it falls on my daughter, the university will not be responsible for it.  If the President of the university himself were to carelessly run over my daughter while driving across campus, neither the university nor their president will be responsible for it.  In other words, this university says, “You can send your kids to camp here if you want to, but don’t expect us to act like a responsible Christian institution.”

Couple of questions: (1) Why would I, as a parent, ever knowingly agree to this?  (2) Why would this prominent Christian university even ask me to agree to this?  This illustration raises some important questions about your church and how it addresses these kinds of legal issues.  We all, as churches and Christian organizations, have to ask ourselves what is more important, our legal liabilities or our Christian witness.

Let me just say here that I do understand where this comes from.  This institution’s lawyers have recommended this to it, because the law permits it.  That is what we lawyers do.  We advise our clients about the full protection afforded by the law.  But for a Christian institution (or a Christian individual, for that matter), is that where the analysis ends?  Do we take advantage of the full extent of the law, no matter what testimony that gives to our community?

In matters of the law, this issue comes up all the time for churches.  Once a church forms (really, no matter what organizational entity they choose…corporation, association, etc.) it has legal considerations.  It must begin making decisions about how it will interface with its community and with the secular world around it.  These decisions cover everything from how it will relate to governmental entities (like the IRS or the local taxing authorities) to how it handles communications on its website to how it relates to parents of children in its camps.  Every communication a church has with any individual or organization is a part of its testimony…every tax document, every contract, every lease agreement, every legal document of every kind.  It is a “Public Relations” issue, if you will.

I believe it is important for your church to have legal counsel in all of these matters.  When your church considers allowing outside groups to use its facilities, you should have legal counsel advise you in terms of the liabilities at issue.  But you should also consider your Christian witness to those with whom you are contracting.  A church (or a Christian organization, or a Christian individual) should consider how much of their “testimony” it/he/she will allow the lawyers to write for them.

As a Christian lawyer, I feel obligated to present my Christian client not only in a way to preserve his/her rights but also in a way consistent with Christian ethics.  There are often positions a Christian (or a church) could take legally, but which I counsel them not to take, due to considerations of their testimony.  And as a church leader, I encourage my own church to consider likewise.  I hope you will too.

As for my daughter…I sent her to this Christian camp  on this Christian campus at my own risk, with little expectation that her Christian host would actually act…um, Christian.  But I also wrote them a nice note about it on the back of their release form.  🙂

© Blake Coffee

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