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Handling Church Litigation
Updated: Jul 30, 2015
Handling Church Litigation: It’s Not About Forgiveness
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” – C.S. Lewis 

What is forgiveness exactly? Forgiveness is an evolution of an emotional state and attitude toward an offender. It is intentional, voluntary, and different from reconciliation, as reconciliation involves relationship repair. Forgiveness, on the other hand, may not involve repairing or even continuing a relationship. It nurtures mental health, as it allows anger to dissolve and promotes happiness.

God instructs us to both grant and seek forgiveness. God forgives us for our wrongdoing and Christ instructed us to forgive those who wrong us (Matthew 6: 14, 15). Forgiveness is good for us, and it is something we need to practice as Christians.

Litigation, however, is incompatible with most models or ideas of forgiveness. Litigation is the process of taking legal action. Here are some aspects of litigation for Christians to keep in mind.

Many people do not agree with the idea that legal action is a necessary part of life. In fact, most people would likely say that it is to be avoided. Yet, legal action, or litigation, is generally how people resolve disputes. Litigation collectively defines the limits of conduct in society. Litigation also provides a funding mechanism whereby someone who has suffered financial loss can recover from the party who the law deems to be at fault. In spite of its abuses, legal action and litigation serve a civilized purpose in that many other methods of dispute resolution are more destructive.

Litigation is not designed to facilitate forgiveness. While the goal may be to get the truth through advocacy, many attorneys and parties lose sight of reality or truth in pursuit of the clever presentation of facts whereby, in many instances, the truth is buried. Helpful facts are overstated and detrimental facts are hidden to gain advantage.

Blame, which is also incompatible with forgiveness, is necessary in successful litigation. Litigation involves accusations and placing blame on others in order to extract or avoid payment. Courts and society engage in mental gymnastics in order to blame the party who can pay. The blame game, a foundational element of successful litigation, utterly destroys the idea of personal responsibility. It subordinates the human need to seek repentance and grant forgiveness. Forgiveness in the maelstrom of blaming or being blamed becomes almost impossible.

Guilt also plays a large role in litigation. People file lawsuits for money, but there may also be emotional reasons, including escaping guilt. Many claims are presented by parents for injuries to their children. These claims are presented in spite of the parental involvement in supervising or lack thereof, and in some cases, actually injuring the children. Greed drives some of this, but we have seen many instances where guilt plays a larger role. A parent who feels the sting of failing a child will seek refuge in blaming others.

Litigation is a process to validate blaming someone else, possibly to assuage guilt. If the judge says it is the church’s fault, it cannot be the parents’ fault. The problem with this type of thinking is, no matter what the court system decides, the injury remains. Moreover, the parental behavior and motivation may be laid bare in the court proceeding. This does not facilitate forgiveness, but causes bitterness and resentment.

True repentance and forgiveness must involve a realistic assessment of blame, which necessitates each person or party owning their respective degree of fault. It rarely means that someone is completely blameless or blameworthy. Litigation creates a narrative where blame is placed completely on someone else. It seeks to blame others to either be paid or avoid paying. Litigation focuses on who must pay. Forgiveness and repentance focuses on healing and possible reconciliation.

Refrain from Taking Sides
At some point in your ministry, you may be involved in litigation. For many, involvement will come in a domestic case where testimony from a teacher, principal, or pastor will be sought by one or both sides in a divorce or custody battle. For others, exposure to this world will come when members sue each other over a contract, an injury, or an abuse matter.

It is difficult to offer spiritual guidance to people involved in a lawsuit. Many times all parties in a lawsuit are all members of the same church family. As a general idea, the pastor needs to continue to be the pastor to all parties. This is hard as litigation lends itself to the notion of taking sides. Kindness shown by the pastor to one party can create resentment from an opposing party or a supporter. Be prepared to explain that providing spiritual leadership does not involve taking sides.

Continue to reach out to all parties and provide spiritual leadership, but be on guard to avoid discussing the lawsuit. This can be extremely difficult as parties in litigation are very consumed by it. Thus, when speaking to a party in a lawsuit, the conversation will likely come around to the lawsuit. Church leaders must deflect all attempts to be dragged into discussing the litigation.

Seek Assistance
Church leaders should seek guidance from conference leadership when facing these challenges. While this is easier said than done, it is completely necessary. Seek help when you need it. The conference, local conference attorney, or the legal team at Adventist Risk Management, Inc. can provide guidance.
Not all pastors or lay leaders will face the challenge of dealing with a lawsuit that directly impacts the congregation. As the frequency of lawsuits continues to grow, the odds of facing this particular problem grows as well. Without strong, Christ-centered leadership, these circumstances may rip your congregation apart. Yet, God can even use a lawsuit to His glory.

For more information, consider reading “When You’ve Been Wronged: Moving From Bitterness to Forgiveness” by Erwin W. Lutzer and “The Forgiveness Project” by Michael Barry.

In Part Two we discuss how to return an offender back to fellowship following litigation and after trust has been violated.

by: Bob Burrow
Adventist Risk Management, Inc.
No Room for Forgiveness? Re-fellowshipping After Litigation
“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” – John F. Kennedy

As we discussed in Part One, no longer feeling anger or resentment towards another for an offense, is an evolution of an emotional state and may not involve reconciliation.

Many offenses resulting in litigation involve a violation of trust. When trust is violated, forgiveness can take place, but trust takes much longer to re-establish. This is because the offense involves such profound deception that trust is all but impossible to rebuild.

In such cases, the offender’s power to deceive is greater than most people’s powers to discern deception. Once certain trusts are violated, they cannot be regained. When such a person (who we will call the “deceitful offender") proclaims restoration, such a proclamation should be taken with caution. Such a person has spent much of their lives honing the skills of deception. Although forgiveness can be extended to such people, complete trust may not always be possible.

Forgiveness is not the same as complete trust. You can have forgiveness without complete trust. The fact that doubt lingers does not mean forgiveness was not extended.

The question is, who receives the benefit of the doubt? Is it the deceitful offender who may have changed or the other people in the church? 

After the litigation is resolved, can a deceitful offender return to and continue in church ministry in any way? Once they have violated the trust placed in them, should they be restored completely without restrictions? In some instances, some restoration is possible. In other cases, no restoration may be possible or desirable. A partial restoration may involve the deceiving offender resuming worship in the congregation, but fully trusting a deceitful offender may be a more difficult matter.

A deceitful offender may be forgiven, but still be required to refrain from volunteer ministry. This is because many view people in volunteer ministry as completely trustworthy. Allowing a deceitful offender to volunteer would shout that they are completely trustworthy when such is not the case. Foolishly entrusting a deceitful offender does not demonstrate forgiveness. It only demonstrates foolishness and poor judgment. 

In these situations, many state that we cannot judge the person and the sincerity of their repentance. We are not capable of discerning whether or not someone has changed. We cannot judge such things, but we can and must judge behavior and past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Past behavior demonstrates a weakness or a tendency. It is all we have by which to predict the future. Better to have a deceitful offender forfeit the honor of volunteer service than returning them to a position of trust where the church and some of its most vulnerable can be harmed again. 

While we must leave the sincerity of the repentance to God, we must also understand that the deceitful offender’s primary tool is deceit. While this may seem harsh, it is needed to reach a balance between restoration and maintaining a safe worship environment.

Let’s explore three examples where a “deceitful offender” has caused harm to the church and should not be restored to their former position of trust within the congregation:
  • Child Abuse – Individuals who have been convicted of child abuse need to be carefully supervised whenever they return to worship with the congregation. These individuals should not be allowed to work within child or youth ministry programs.
  • Theft or Embezzlement – Individuals who have stolen church property or funds should not be allowed the opportunity to steal a second time by returning them to positions of trust which provide financial opportunity.
  • Fraud on Church Members – Individuals who have engaged in fraudulent schemes or scams should not be allowed to hold leadership positions that will give them easy access to church members and their personal finances.

In each of these situations, trust has been violated through the use of deception. Innocent individuals and the congregation’s ministry and reputation have been harmed due to these willful offenses.  The individual who caused this harm can be forgiven for their actions, but church leadership must be mindful of its fiduciary duty to maintain the safety of its members and ministries.

Working with deceitful offenders who have violated trust given in the past can be very challenging. Pastors and church leaders need to seek opportunities for these individuals that will minimize the temptation to harm again.  Sincere individuals should appreciate appropriate restrictions by a church that shows its concern for the person, but still seeks ways for them to use their talents in some meaningful ministry. 

Be honest and forthright in discussing any restrictions with the individual so there is clear understanding by all parties. Seek their input on areas where they believe their talents can be best utilized in the congregation. For certain categories of offenses, such as child abuse and embezzlement, prior acts may make future similar acts by those forgiven individuals uninsurable. Church leaders should take this under advisement and check with their insurance provider to understand the risk involved.

If church leaders believe the person can still safely contribute to the congregation’s ministry, the privilege of serving can be extended once again. Requesting forgiveness means accepting consequences and owning past harmful acts. Added restrictions are a small price for restoration in a congregation.

Forgiveness is needed and we should freely seek it and grant it to others, but it does not repair everything. Deceitful offenders who are restored must still be monitored.  The sound counsel of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify” is still true today.  

by: Bob Burrow
Adventist Risk Management, Inc.