Disclaimer: This post does not purport to give legal advice. Such advice should only be obtained from a certified attorney.
The first part of this post is to demonstrate that I am "just not whistling Dixie." The second part is a case study of an actual, current lawsuit against a church and the church's response. The last section includes recommendations to protect our readers. Unlike certain conciliation™ groups, we are looking out for those of you who are a part of the huge machine which is often disguised as the church.
Peacemakers admits they are using legal methods to prevent the church from getting sued.
Corollary: They are not protecting the individual church members, merely the entity known as the church. They are protecting the organization, not you.
So even if you are part of the church, you are not what is being protected by these covenants. If you, church member, have a horrible experience at the hands of church leaders, you will find an organization which has protected itself against you. You are the bad guy, the one to be afraid of. Make sure you understand that. We have an actual case for you to read later in the post.
Using Christian Conciliation Clauses was written by The Institute of Christian Conciliation(ICC) which is a division of, and this should not surprise our readers, Peacemaker Ministries which is headed by Attorney Ken Sande. Recommendation: whenever anyone brings up Peacemaker Ministries and Ken Sande, always call him Atty. Sande. It gives perspective. Look what they want churches to put in their membership agreement.
One of the best ways to make sure that a conflict is resolved constructively is to include a conciliation clause in any contract you sign. These clauses are legally enforceable and require that any dispute related to the contract be resolved through biblically-based mediation or arbitration rather than through litigation.Using these clauses may help you to avoid the stress and expense of the secular legal system.
They then put in the expected niceties, obviously overlooking the fact that many church leaders are committed to peace and justice until they are confronted by serious conflict, often brought on by the leadership themselves. Mars Hill, ironically, suggested Peacemaker materials in the past.
Conciliation clauses should be used by those who are truly committed to biblical principles of peace, justice, and reconciliation, and who place a high priority on honoring God and preserving relationships even in the midst of conflict.
Here is a suggested clause written by ICC which should be part of membership contracts.
Any claim or dispute arising from or related to this agreement shall be settled by mediation and, if necessary, legally binding arbitration in accordance with the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation of the Institute for Christian Conciliation, a division of Peacemaker® Ministries (complete text of the Rules is available at www.Peacemaker.net). Judgment upon an arbitration decision may be entered in any court otherwise having jurisdiction. The parties understand that these methods shall be the sole remedy for any controversy or claim arising out of this agreement and expressly waive their right to file a lawsuit in any civil court against one another for such disputes, except to enforce an arbitration decision.
Apparently, the ICC believes these clauses are now in widespread use.
These clauses are being used throughout the country by a wide variety of churches, businesses, ministries, and schools.
Here is ICC's summation:
- Conciliation clauses have been used successfully for many years.
- Conciliation clauses can save you a great deal of time, money, and energy.
- Conciliation clauses are legally enforceable.
Listen to the language ICC uses in this comment. Would you feel comfortable signing this, knowing that they are going to go after you legally if you change your mind?
Both state and federal courts will usually enforce conciliation agreements that require arbitration. If a dispute arises and either party refuses to participate in conciliation efforts, the other party may petition a court for an order to compel the parties to proceed with mediation and arbitration. Similarly, if either party files a lawsuit regarding a contract violation, the other party may ask the court to stop the suit and direct the parties to proceed with conciliation
This sort of clause is legally enforceable.
Here is an example of a Court that upheld this clause.
The enforceability of this clause was recently tested and upheld in Encore Productions, Inc. v. PromiseKeepers, 53 F. Supp. 2nd 1101 (D. Colorado, 1999), where the Court acknowledged that people of faith are free to make contractual agreements to resolve conflicts in a manner consistent with their common faith convictions.
Even more chilling for the average Joe church attendee is this statement found in the above link.
Faith-based preventive law practices are growing more prevalent in the United States and abroad.
Folks you are up against a legal machine designed to protect church organizations from lawsuits. They are not designed to protect you from being hurt by the church. Remember, you are not considered part of the church when you bring action against your church. I am sure that some of you are thinking "This couldn't happen to me. I would never want to sue my church." Are you really sure?
A current case before the Ohio courts
Please read the description of this lawsuit very carefully. In this case, the mediation clause was not explicitly spelled out. The church went to court claiming that this couple implicitly agreed to this arrangement,
A married mother sought counseling from Pastor Steven Robbins, one of 30 pastors of the large Vineyard Church of Columbus (Ohio.) She had been sexually abused as child by three men who were authority figures. She developed a sexual addiction due to her abuse and wanted help in dealing with it. Robbins allegedly took advantage of his position of trust. From the Columbus Dispatch linked above:
The complaint alleges that Robbins asked the woman to relate her sexual history “to see how the demonic could possibly be in play.” The woman told him she had been sexually abused as a child by three men in positions of authority, the complaint said.
According to the complaint, “Defendant Robbins continued to press Jane Doe for more detail of her sexual history despite knowing that all of the discussion of her sexual history was revving up her addiction.”
The sexual relationship between the pair ended when the woman entered an out-of-state treatment facility for sex addiction.
In 2011, the family proceeded with a lawsuit, naming the pastor, the church and the denomination. They alleged that the pastor was abusive in his actions because he was aware of the woman's past history and used his position as an authority figure to take advantage of her.
The woman's counseling fees, in the aftermath of that betrayal, have been high and the family is suing to recover those expenses. However, it appears that they are only asking for help with medical bills, which is understandable given the extent of the betrayal and her subsequent hospitalization. In other words, they are not asking for the moon.
The family decided to sue in part because their counseling expenses have been high, Hollern said.
The complaint asks for punitive damages in excess of $25,000 and compensatory damages in excess of $25,000. “The evidence will show that future counseling alone will be a very significant figure, much more than that amount,”
The response of the church to the lawsuit
Vineyard Church of Columbus filed a claim that the lawsuit was invalid because the couple implicitly agreed to biblical mediation when they joined the church. According to the Columbus Dispatch
the woman and her husband agreed to handle disputes only via biblically based mediation or binding arbitration when they became members of the church
Now watch how dogged the church becomes in this instance. A lower court ruled in favor of the lawsuit proceeding. Apparently, they did not agree that the family had agreed to biblical mediation upon becoming members since it was not clearly spelled out. So, the church appealed and lost that appeal reported on 6/2014. The church claimed that such mediation was implicit when they joined the church. Again, from the Dispatch:
To join the church, potential members must agree to settle all disputes through Christian mediation, said Vineyard’s senior pastor, the Rev. Rich Nathan.
The county and appellate courts said the evidence did not support the church’s claim that the family had agreed to such a policy.
So is the case going to trial yet? Nope. The church is still not finished. According to the Dispatch:
Nathan said the church is considering its next step and he continues to hope for Christian mediation.
Let's take a look at some of the issues inherent in this case.
- The church lost its appeal ONLY because they did not clearly state that mediation was part of their membership agreement. You can be sure that such an oversight has been remedied.
- The church clearly believes that their membership requirements bar a member from seeking legal redress against the church. It appears they will go to court again and again to prevent outside legal action.
- Note how long this process has been going on for the family. The initial lawsuit was filed in 2011. It is now 2014 and the church is considering further legal options. They are digging in. So, even though the outcome has been in favor of the family, they have been fighting for three years and the case has still not been heard in court. This is an exhausting, financially draining process for the family, even if they eventually win.
Thoughts for everyone to consider upon joining a church
Remember, even the best church leadership can be capable of great sin. If you read this blog, you should know that to be true. Read your Bible for confirmation. So, be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.
- Do not be surprised when church leadership acts badly.
- Membership forms can be called by any number of names: membership covenants, membership contracts, membership agreements, membership affirmations, etc. They are all legally enforceable.
- You are entering into a legal arrangement when you sign a membership contract. Never, ever forget it. This is not some cutesy Hallmark moment of joining hands and singing Kumbaya.
- Churches will seek to enforce that contract. Do you have the time and money to stand against them?
- You do not have to sign a membership agreement for it to be enforceable. The church can have you stand and affirm it verbally. It can have you sign a paper that you were present at a meeting at which the contract was presented.
- Do not sign a membership document unless you are fully prepared to deal with the implications. Also, do not sign a form that states you were present when it was discussed. Better yet, leave the room when the leaders discuss it. Leave the room in which people are standing and verbally agreeing to the contract. Make sure a witness knows you are leaving the room. Remember who that witness was. It could come in handy.
- If you have signed such a document, you can send a letter to the church, revoking your membership. That is the only way to get out of the contract. A sample letter is provided in this post. We do not make any claims that this letter is legally approved but we have received a report of one church which received this letter and removed the member's name from the membership roster without incident and discussion. With any questions, contact an attorney.
- If your church denies that this is a legally binding contract, don't listen to them. Even if they are stupid enough not to research the legalities of such an agreement, it is still a contract. Believe you me, if something bad happens, they will suddenly discover the joys of signed membership covenants.
- Remember, the courts are not inclined to get involved in religious matters. A church can treat members very badly and get away with a lot because of these covenants.
There are more and more people who are getting smart and refusing to sign covenants. We have heard a report about a revolt in one church in which the congregation refused to sign a newly minted covenant. Unfortunately, they fell for standing and repeating the agreement. Little do they know that they are now potentially legally bound to that entity. Folks, be smart and don't be fooled. If you decide to sign/affirm the agreement, do so with eyes wide open.
Lydia's Corner: Genesis 5:1-7:24 Matthew 3:7-4:11 Psalm 3:1-8 Proverbs 1:10-19