Enforcing Agreements Not to Sue Your Church

For a host of reasons, it seems both unbiblical and un-Christian for a church member to sue one’s own church. (Indeed, I think this is an issue only in the U.S.—it simply would not occur to the vast majority of Christians in the world to express their unhappiness with their church by suing it.) But, just to be sure, many churches encourage members to agree to bring any disputes to mediation or arbitration, rather than to court, often as a condition of membership.

My own church, Berean Baptist Church, offers such an agreement to prospective members. In addition to signing a commitment to adhere to the church’s by-laws, prospective members are encouraged to sign a commitment not to sue the church, but to “submit the matter to mediation and, if necessary, to arbitration.”

A recent case tests the enforceability of such an agreement. A married couple joined a Vineyard church outside Columbus, Ohio, in 2006. The church requires its members to commit to Vineyard’s “disciplinary and dispute resolution process,” as part of its membership application. The couple signed this application, and attended the Newcomer’s class, both of which are required for membership. In the Newcomer’s class, potential members are given a booklet which includes the dispute resolution policy. The policy is similar to the standard clause promoted by Peacemaker Ministries, calling for all disputes between members and their church to be resolved through “biblically-based mediation and, if necessary, arbitration, in accordance with the Rules of Procedure of the Institute for Christian Conciliation.” The couple claims that they never received the booklet, nor was the dispute resolution policy addressed in their membership class.

The couple filed a lawsuit against the church in 2011, after the wife was sexually abused by an associate pastor who was counseling her. The church argued that the matter ought to be resolved privately rather than in court, based on the couple’s promise not to sue the church. The trial court rejected the church’s argument; the church appealed. This summer, Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the couple, agreeing with the lower court that the evidence did not support the church’s claim that the family had agreed to the policy (Doe v Vineyard Columbus, 2014-Ohio-2617). Although the membership application included an agreement to the disciplinary and dispute resolution process, the court pointed out that the application did not include the policy itself, nor reference the Newcomer’s booklet where one could find the policy and read it before agreeing to become a member. Thus, the court could not find a knowing agreement to mediate or arbitrate disputes.

Churches shouldn’t have to work this hard to convince their members not to sue them. Whether or not this couple signed this form, or agreed sometime in the past not to sue their church, it’s contrary to everything that Christ’s church stands for, for members to be bringing lawsuits against their churches in the civil courts. Paul said as much in I Corinthians 6:1-8. In this case, the church isn’t disputing that the abuse occurred; the associate pastor was fired as soon as it came to light. This argument is only about the forum: should the dispute be resolved in court, or privately?

One wonders why the family is so reluctant to resolve this in a private Christian mediation or arbitration process. The matter could have been resolved long ago, had they gone straight to Christian ADR. Instead, they’ve now filed for bankruptcy, citing the wife’s high therapy bills. And, after three years of litigation, all they’ve accomplished is the right to go forward with their lawsuit. It could be months or years before they see the end of this. One wonders, too, what efforts the church has made to help this family out so they would have no reason to sue.

For all the churches–including my own–that have these clauses in their membership documents, this case is a cautionary tale: do members know and understand what it means to waive their right to sue their church? One of the challenges for this Vineyard church was finding a copy of the Newcomer’s booklet from 2006, when the plaintiffs joined the church. Churches need to educate members on these policies and their implications, make sure members understand them, and then hang onto them, “just in case.”