The first four episodes of our “Times Are Changing in America” series covered four major topics for ministries: robust ministerial employment contracts, the cultural redefinition of discrimination, social media pitfalls, and strong statements of faith and codes of conduct. Handling these four topics appropriately is essential to guaranteeing maximum ministry with minimum liability in the current social and political environment.
Today's episode covers facility use policies. To some, this topic may seem mundane, but many ministries and churches have left themselves open to significant liability because they have not developed and consistently followed a well-thought-out facility use policy. Churches tend to use their facilities throughout the week for a variety of different people and events, some of which may not be "church sanctioned." We will discuss two significant aspects of facility use policies and management.
The first concern is whether or not your facility is open to the public or available for rent in any way. Some churches are willing to rent their sanctuary or fellowship hall for marriages, anniversary celebrations, or even birthday parties. A church in the Upper Midwest called our office to request assistance because they received a call from a couple who wanted to use the facility for their wedding, but they were planning to hold a ceremony the church would not approve of biblically. The church denied use of their facility, and the couple threatened a discrimination lawsuit. This began a review of the church’s policies, procedures, and past facility use.
Many churches would argue their facilities are ALWAYS used in ways consistent with their beliefs. But sometimes, when a review is conducted, they will notice instances where a friend or child of a member held an event or ceremony not entirely consistent with the ministry's policies. Once this has been confirmed, a case can be made that church policy is not consistently followed, and those pursuing a discrimination case may have more substantial grounds than the ministry at first thought possible.
How can this scenario be prevented? A facility use policy should be developed that encompasses all of the facility's possible uses, including internal and external purposes. For instance, some ministries allow local Christian schools to utilize the facility for sports practices or sports games. If a child is injured in the facility during practice or a game, the facility use policy and insurance policies will dictate liability and coverage. Who is at fault if a broken plank in the floor caused the injury? Who is at fault if water is spilled and a child slips and falls? The answers to these questions need to be thought out ahead of time to avoid serious situations later.
What should be included in a facility use policy? One of the elements that should be included in the policy is whether or not you will charge a fee for use of the facility? In the earlier illustration of the wedding event, not charging for use of the space provided the church greater latitude in policing the ministry's policies. Many churches and ministries choose to charge an incidental or cleaning fee that covers the cost of operating the facility during time of use. However, if no specific rental fee is charged, certain legal requirements can be avoided.
The policy should also clearly state that all uses of the facility should align with the ministry’s code of conduct and statement of faith (further illustrating how important these two documents are to any ministry). This topic was discussed in our previous episode, which can be accessed from our website. In general, the policy should state that all events and uses must be consistent with the ministry's faith and practice. This information should be clearly articulated to anyone who desires to utilize the facility.
The second area of concern regarding facility use policies involves commercial liability and premise liability insurance policies. Just recently, we were served a lawsuit for one of our partner churches. The ministry was sued because a young man wandered off into another section of the church, climbed a ladder into the attic, and fell through the ceiling, requiring multiple surgeries. This one-time incident became a significant lawsuit. Insurance did not cover the specific incident because it was not an approved use of the building, and the child was not attending a church function at the time.
How can I avoid not having adequate coverage? Anyone who utilizes your facility for any type of function should be covered. For instance, if a Christian school basketball team practices and plays games at the facility, the Christian school should maintain a policy that covers the practices and games while at the facility. The church that owns the facility should be named an additional insured on the policy. This overlap in coverage ensures the church is not vulnerable to having their insurance deny a claim while the Christian school's insurance declines the claim. Every group that uses the facility should be covered by an insurance policy, either the church's policy or the group's policy.
How can I find out if our insurance covers these scenarios? It would be best if you had a conversation with your insurance carrier or provider to discuss each way your facility is currently used. The world has become way too litigious, even with Christian school parents, to believe that you “will never get sued.” Protecting your church and ensuring that one incident does not risk your ministry’s assets is vitally important to your church's good stewardship.
At the NCLL, we want your ministry to experience “maximum ministry with minimum liability.” Spend time ensuring your facility use policy is up to date and adequately protects your ministry from potential uses that could harm your ministry. You can send your policies to firstname.lastname@example.org, and our legal team will review them to help ensure you’ve covered all the necessary areas of concern.