How would you describe your church to your next-door neighbor? How would you describe your church to that neighbor’s 6-year old daughter? How would you describe your church to another pastor in your community? How would you describe your church to the homeless person on the street? HOPEFULLY, you answered each of these questions differently, because you cannot know how to describe your church appropriately unless you first know something about the person(s) to whom you are describing it. Right?
The audience matters. While the pastor down the street may want to know something about your church’s theology, your neighbor’s 6-year old daughter could not care less about that. While your neighbor may want to know about your church’s location or your worship style or your ministries, the homeless person on the street just wants to know if there is a place there to get some food or to sleep for the night. The point is, it is important to understand what the person wants to know before you start describing your church.
So what does the government want to know about your church? What about the legal community? Believe me, it is an entirely different set of questions from any of these, and probably different from anything you might imagine. The government wants to know what kind of taxable entity you are, and if your are not taxable, the government wants to know why not. The days when the IRS just “assumes” you are a church because of your name or just gives you the benefit of the doubt are long gone (if those days ever really existed in the first place). The lawyers, on the other hand, want to know what kind of legal entity you are (that is a different question from what type …
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16
Once again, the mediator in me comes out. I ranted against bad lawyer decisions in a previous post and the negative effect they can have on a church’s (or Christian institution’s) testimony. Now, feeling guilty for the slur against my brethren (and sistren) in the law, I want to say something good about church lawyers: sometimes they/we get it right.
So, here’s a big fist bump to all the lawyers out there who have given solid Christian counsel to a church or other Christian organization, to help them show Godly wisdom in a legally-complicated world. Join me in a round of applause for each of the following good and wise legal recommendations lawyers smarter than I have given their Christian institutional clients (and you might want to pass this post along to your pastor or church administrator, just to make sure your church is doing these things):
FBI Background checks for all workers (both payed and volunteer) who have any interface at all with children or youth. I know, I know, it is a pretty big deal to implement this for the first time, especially with your long-tenured workers and volunteers. But nothing says “We love you and care about your children” more clearly to parents than a comprehensive background-check policy for their children’s workers, teachers and care-givers. There are plenty of services all around your community now who can coordinate this for you.
A comprehensive child safety awareness policy. I am lumping a lot of little things together here, like windows in all the doors, a policy of at least two workers in every room, a comprehensive and coherent fire escape plan, an up-to-date …
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.”