In years gone by, churches never locked their doors and few people would fathom suing a church. Those days are long gone. Lawsuits, embezzlement, and shootings inside places of worship are sweeping today’s headlines.
Richard Hammar, an attorney, CPA, and best-selling author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy, told a standing-room only crowd of nearly 400 attendees at this year’s National Association of Church Business Administration’s National Conference in Nashville, Tenn., that faith alone isn’t enough to protect a congregation against the myriad risks they face.
Returning for his 20th consecutive conference as a workshop speaker, Hammar once again captivated conference goers with the most recent legal and tax developments relevant to church administrators including litigation trends and ways to help churches become more security conscious.
"Foresight, not retrospect, is the standard of diligence," said Hammar, quoting Thomas Gaskell Shearman and Amasa Angell Redfield regarding negligence. "It is nearly always easy, after an accident happened, to see how it could have been avoided. But negligence is not a matter to be judged after the occurrence."
Thousands of churches are sued every year in this country, usually by their own members. These lawsuits are typically triggered by sharing confidential information, questionable counseling practices, sexual misconduct, or church discipline.
Research indicates that employment-related disputes are the number one cause of church litigation today, said Hammar, a Harvard Law School graduate who has authored more than 100 books including Pastor, Church & Law and the annual Church and Clergy Tax Guide. That is a significant risk that many church leaders are not aware of or often prepared to handle.
Hammar warned managing risk in churches and synagogues is no longer an option. The church has been and will continue to be the subject of major litigation. That’s why places of worship have to think like businesses and develop risk management strategies to head off physical, financial or emotional damage.
Places of worship of all sizes are spending more time and money safeguarding their staff, congregants and property. Measures range from installing sophisticated surveillance systems to conducting criminal background checks on volunteers and workers.
What about having uniformed security guards and metal detectors outside the sanctuary? Sounds a little over the top? Well, maybe not after considering the 15 deadly church shootings in the past 10 years Hammar cited:
Despite a church’s best effort to protect their flock, the unforeseen can happen. Hammar cited one of the most notorious acts of church violence, which occurred at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1999. During a Wednesday night youth rally, a gunman entered the church and fired more than 100 shots, killing seven youths and injuring seven others. He then fatally shot himself. The man was not a member of the church, and no motive has been determined.
- Handguns were used in 10 cases and rifles in the remaining five.
- The gunman committed suicide in eight cases.
- Hate-group violence and family disputes were motives for many of the crimes.
- Ten of the shootings occurred during service.
“Yet again, we have seen a sanctuary violated by gun violence, taking children brimming with faith and promise and hope before their time…,” said Hammar, reading a quote by President Bill Clinton following the Wedgwood tragedy. “We know that there is nothing we can do to assure that this will never happen, but there is a lot more we can do to assure that it will happen more rarely.”
Hammar cited several jaw-dropping case studies that forced churches into court. For instance, there was the pedophile youth leader; there was the church pastor who downloaded pornography on his office computer and got caught; there was the church administrator who was sentenced to 32 years for embezzling over $350,000 from his church; and there was the burglar who was caught in the act on a church’s video surveillance, but tried to have his conviction overturned because the tape didn’t display the date and time.
Regarding the same-sex marriage issue, Hammar asked the attendees whether a church can be sued for not allowing same-sex marriages in the church? Should a pastor be sued for not performing a same-sex ceremony? Or, should they be sued for performing one?
The answer is no to all three.
“No religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs,” said Hammar, quoting the Federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Hammar, who has been inducted into the church management “hall of fame” by the National Association of Church Business Administration, also provided references and practical guidelines covering the many intricacies and specifics unique to church accounting.
In appreciation of the informative, and at times humorous, lecture, attendees thanked Hammar with a standing ovation.