What is a minister's worst nightmare? How about a large group of lawyers gathered to discuss the best way to sue clergy and churches? In 1992 the American Bar Association hosted just such a seminar, and similar ones have been held regionally across the country since then. What is disturbing about these meetings is not their intention of bringing those clergy or churches that act illegally to justice—wrongdoers should be held responsible—but their emphasis oftentimes on how to land large settlement amounts. A Christian lawyer who attended one such meeting described it as "blood being poured into shark-infested waters." In the last decade, the number of lawsuits filed against ministers and churches has increased precipitously, shattering the old (if incorrect) concept of "sacred immunity" that many churches have operated under. In response, books and seminars have emerged to educate ministers, lay workers, and attorneys on how to defend against these lawsuits. Many divinity schools and seminaries have also instituted courses on "ministry and law" as part of their curricula or as part of their continuing ministerial education. Despite these efforts, though, it seems clear that, guilty or not, ministers and their churches have become large and desirable targets for many plaintiffs' attorneys and their clients. Clergy, churches, and religious organizations in America appear to be on the defensive.
Given the new litigious environment, churches need to—and can—take concrete steps to lessen the likelihood of their being taken to court. (Even frivolous cases that can easily be defended in court will sap a church's budget.)
When it comes to ministry, all lawsuits are not created equal. There are what I call the ...1