Should Christian Organizations Use NDAs?

In my post dated November 27, 2021, I addressed some of the problems with Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). In this post, I want to examine their role in the church. Many Christian organizations – churches, ministries, parachurch organizations – have resolved disputes with claimants by requiring them to sign an NDA. The same concerns about NDAs identified in secular settings pertain to the church – and there are other concerns as well. Should Christian organizations be using NDAs?

The biggest complaint about NDAs is that they permit abusers to keep abusing. In the church, a glaring example of this is the Catholic Church’s settlement of complaints about priests abusing minors, where victims or their families were required to sign an NDA in exchange for a financial settlement, then the bishop re-assigned the offender, who offended anew. The families were not permitted to complain or warn anyone, because they had signed an NDA. U.S. Catholic bishops reversed course in 2002, adopting a policy forbidding confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements in financial settlements unless the victim requested it. That left pre-2002 claimants uncertain as to whether they could speak up.

NDAs are still common on the Protestant side. An NDA featured prominently in the Ravi Zacharias scandal; a woman abused by him settled a lawsuit in 2017 that included an NDA that prohibited her from warning other victims. Although Ravi died in early 2020, his estate refused to release her from the NDA, preventing her from participating in the subsequent investigation into his widespread sexual abuse. It’s an example of the durability of these provisions – they can gag a party for life.

According to Christianity Today magazine, NDAs have been used by prominent churches and organizations to protect leaders accused of spiritual, sexual or other kinds of abuse, including Willow Creek, Mars Hill, Dave Ramsey Ministries, Cru, and Acts 29 (“NDAs Kept These Christians Silent. Now They’re Speaking Out Against Them,” July 7, 2021). CT reports that many churches and ministries have NDAs in their employee handbooks.

 

Has anyone thought biblically about NDAs?

There is certainly a place for confidentiality in the church. Proverbs 17:9 notes that it is loving to “cover over an offense,” whereas “whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” But we are also exhorted to address sin (Matthew 18:15-17, Galatians 6:1, I Timothy 5:20). So if a church leader hears an accusation against a third party, should the church leader “cover over” the offense, or address it as sin? In order to determine whether there’s a sin that needs rebuke, it seems like the accusation at least deserves an investigation. When a church or ministry is sued, it naturally rushes to protect, and to be skeptical, if not dismissive, of the complaint. But at some point shouldn’t it do some serious self-examination as to whether there is any truth to the accusation? Christians of all people should be aware of our blind spots. Jesus warned us about neglecting the logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7:3). Are Christian defendants using NDAs as a way to avoid self-examination? “Those who conceal their sins do not prosper” (Proverbs 28:13).

There’s something troubling about promising never to mention a person’s bad behavior in exchange for money. This is, of course, how lawsuits are settled — parties agree to this to avoid a public trial where their own credibility and lifestyle will be challenged and exposed. But it shows how lawsuits are the wrong vehicle for addressing sin in the church. Paul warned Christians not to sue one another (I Corinthians 6:1-7), and now we see another reason why: when victims of abuse sue their offender, or his organization, the lawsuit is settled when the offender buys their victims’ silence.

NDAs also have the effect of compelling lying. An employee who is dismissed as a whistleblower and subsequently bound by an NDA is prohibited from telling potential employers the reason for leaving her previous employment. Either she gives the standard line, “I can’t talk about it” – words that are a red flag that she’s gagged by an NDA, and are not helpful to potential employers – or she says something untrue so as not to violate the NDA. Some NDAs prohibit disclosing that there’s an NDA, so the party can’t even explain why they can’t talk about it. If the offender leaves the church or ministry with an NDA in place, and a subsequent church or potential employer inquires about the person, the ministry cannot disclose the real reason for the person’s departure; that may not be lying, but it’s not telling the truth either.

There are also aspects of NDAs that could be unbiblical:

  • Preventing a party from discussing the matter with a counselor or therapist is contrary to Proverbs 11:14 and 15:22, which applaud consulting “a multitude of counselors.”
  • Preventing a party from discussing the matter with their spouse controverts Matthew 19:5-6, because the “two become one” in marriage.
  • Preventing a party from discussing the matter with their pastor or spiritual advisor hinders the very role of the pastor, deacon and overseer – see, e.g., I Timothy 4.
  • Extending the NDA beyond the life of one party, as in the Ravi Zacharias case, seems unconscionable; even that most sacred of covenants, marriage, terminates upon the death of one of the parties. Romans 7:2-3.

 

Banning NDAs

Because NDAs have been used to conceal abuse by pastors, missionaries and other church leaders, there is an effort in the church to ban them altogether. Calling themselves “#NDAfree,” this movement invites Christian organizations and churches to pledge “to be free from NDAs.” This may be difficult when an insurance company is involved, as insisting on an NDA may be its standard practice when it’s paying.

Another option would be for Christian parties simply to reduce the scope and extent of NDAs. Instead of unthinkingly following the world’s example, Christians ought to be leading the way in designing reasonable, caring provisions that strike the balance between maintaining needed confidentiality while respecting both parties.

NDAs are not “bad” or “wrong,” but they are fraught. Christians should be careful that they’re acting out of love, more than out of fear or self-protection, in using them.

 

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