Advice to Churches to Prevent Member Lawsuits

Following up on my previous post, based on Doe v Vineyard Church, regarding church members who were able to sue their church despite signing a document promising that they would not, here are some suggestions for churches to prevent members from suing their church:

  • Have a Dispute Resolution Policy that specifically states that members will resolve their disputes through mediation and/or arbitration, and that they will not sue their church or other church members. A sample can be found on Peacemaker Ministries’ website.
  • Make it clear to members and to prospective members where they can find the Dispute Resolution Policy. If it’s a separate document, as Peacemaker Ministries recommends, make sure there are cross-references between it and the church’s by-laws. If it’s in a “newcomer’s booklet” or other information for prospective members, make sure it’s clearly identified, not buried.
  • As part of the membership class or other membership education process, specifically teach on the dispute resolution policy, the importance of resolving disputes within the body of Christ rather than in court, and the ramifications of waiving the right to sue one’s church. It is not sufficient to tell prospective members to read the policy on their own.
  • If the membership commitment form does not contain the dispute resolution policy itself, but only references it, be sure that the membership commitment form describes exactly where the policy can be found. Determine some way to verify that the prospective member has indeed read the policy. Consider including a line in the membership commitment like, “I have received a copy of the Dispute Resolution Policy, have had a chance to review it, and have had any questions about it answered.”
  • Maintain documentation of membership commitments.
  • Hang onto various versions of the dispute resolution policy, with dates indicating when each version was in effect.

The key feature that a court will look for is “informed consent.” Did new members consent to mediate or arbitrate all future disputes, and knowingly waive the right to sue their church? Did new members understand the implications of agreeing to med/arb and foregoing litigation? Referring in the membership commitment form to a dispute resolution policy, without describing it or where the policy itself can be found, is ineffective. Having the policy as an appendix in a booklet for newcomers, then simply telling prospective members to read it, is insufficient. Talking generally about the policy, without explaining its ramifications, is insufficient too. Thoughtful consideration to this topic will ensure that members want to resolve church disputes within the church, rather than in court.

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