For Churches, How Much Risk Is Too Much?
For Travis Hutchinson, the life of a pastor in a small-town Georgia church is about preaching the gospel, ministering to the needy and, increasingly, figuring out how to handle an ever-growing list of risks.
Some new risks are real and demand vigilance, says Hutchinson, pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church in LaFayette, Ga. For example, conducting a criminal background check on everyone who works with children has become a necessity.
Other risks are more remote, he says. Still, vendors stoke anxiety about everything from shooting sprees to federal audits.
"I get lots and lots of stuff that just seems like fear mongering, and apparently that's taken hold in some places," says Hutchinson. "One of the things we have to do as a congregation is ask ourselves: How much of our time is (risk management) eating up? And how much time are we spending doing what God wants us to do?"
In the wake of the Catholic Church's clergy sexual abuse crises and several church shooting incidents in recent years, risk has become a hot topic for churches. The National Association of Church Business Administration last year convened 30 first-time regional workshops to raise risk awareness among the 85 percent of churches it says are vulnerable because they don't have a professional administrator.
"Risk management is a huge issue in the church right now," says NACBA Deputy Chief Executive Officer Phillip Martin. "It carries everything from child protection issues … to the issue of security as it relates to guns, protection of pastors, staff and congregants."
This year, GuideOne Insurance is responding to rising demand from churches by rolling out new types of coverage, such as insurance against income loss caused by a church intruder. In March, church leaders will descend on Richardson, Texas and Grove City, Ohio for conferences on church security.
For some church leaders, raising risk awareness and taking steps to prevent disasters is a matter of faithfulness. Tom Danklefsen, executive pastor of Grove City United Methodist Church in Grove City, Ohio, coaches pastors of small and mid-sized churches on a range of risk issues, from protecting a church's tax-exempt status to thwarting the efforts of pickpockets during worship services.
"We're managing God's resources, and we want to do that well," Danklefsen says. "We have to do due diligence. (Using safeguards) frees us to do better ministry. We don't have to worry, `Well, gosh, is this guy a criminal?' We know the background" because the church does background checks on employees and volunteers who work with children or the elderly.
But some say churches can become so concerned with minimizing risk they forget how take risks appropriate to Christian discipleship. Theologian Scott Bader-Saye worries, for instance, that churches preoccupied with institutional safety may become unwelcoming toward poor people because embracing them could pose hazards to their bottom lines. Another concern: churches anxious to protect endowment assets may not notice when opportunities for generosity come along.
"We're seeing faithfulness being reduced to good business management," says Bader-Saye, a professor of moral theology at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. "There are things more important than being safe. Those things involve loving God, loving neighbor, pursuing the good … If we teach our children that our fundamental objective is safety and security, then we don't prepare them to take the kind of risks they need to take to be disciples and to have joyful and fulfilling lives."