David Gibbs III, the President and General Counsel at the National Center for Life and Liberty, discusses the importance of churches seeking legal protections in today’s changing world.
Thank you for joining us for Family Policy Matters. It goes unsaid that churches are vital to the health and wellbeing of both our citizens in our society, but in American culture today, many churches and pastors find themselves under increasing levels of scrutiny and sometimes, even attacks from those who often hold a different worldview. Church leaders need to be wise and discerning and take practical steps to protect their ministries from these growing attacks. Today, we’re fortunate to be joined by a man who is helping pastors and ministry leaders do just that. David Gibbs, III serves as president and general counsel of the National Center for Life and Liberty or (NCLL), a legal ministry that seeks to protect the rights of churches and Christian organizations across our nation. A graduate of Duke Law School, David is a well-known speaker and author and a highly accomplished trial attorney. He is perhaps most well known as the lead attorney in the Terri Schiavo case where he represented Terri Schiavo’s parents before the US Supreme Court, in an attempt to maintain life-sustaining measures to preserve Terri’s life, which was ultimately lost, unfortunately, in 2005. Currently the NCLL is hosting “Protect Your Church” legal seminars in many cities around the country, including here in North Carolina, and we’re excited to talk to David about that today. David Gibbs, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you back on the show.
DAVID GIBBS: John, it’s always my honor and privilege to be with you. I believe in you, your voice, your leadership. As you’re talking about the church, it gets me excited, because I’m someone who believes the answer isn’t in the courtroom. It’s not in the state house or the White House. It is in the church house and keeping our churches strong and vibrant is so important.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, tell us a little bit about the goal of the Protect Your Church seminars you’re doing, and why is it important for churches to be thinking about legal liability issues, especially when pastors and other church leaders clearly would rather be focused on ministering in their communities and sharing the love and truth of Jesus Christ to the world?
DAVID GIBBS: John, we don’t want to disturb pastors. We love pastors, church leaders, ministry leaders as they are, many of them volunteering and sacrificing for the work of the Lord. But if you don’t tend to the legal or liability type issues, first of all, you’re putting your entire church at risk, which is bad stewardship. Second of all, you could be putting your workers at risk. But then number three—and I think this is important as well—you could be putting innocent people at risk.We think about children in particular, vulnerable adults or others that are in our churches and making sure that, as ministry leaders, we are keeping our ministries safe. Now I do to remind folks, if you’re totally risk adverse, you could say, well, we just can’t do anything and you could talk yourself out of having any ministry. Our heartbeat at the NCLL is maximum ministry. So whether you’re a pastor or ministry leader, we want to encourage you to keep doing—do what you’re called to, do what your vision is, do what you feel led to do. But there’s a smart way and a less smart way to do everything. We want maximum ministry, but we encourage folks to do that with minimal liability.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, what do you see are the most common weak points or vulnerabilities that make churches susceptible to legal challenges or other challenges of concern?
DAVID GIBBS: There are a few areas that, if you were as a church to say, what could we get sued for? And I’ll just say a big number—a million dollar lawsuit—in the next couple of years, it would generally be one of two things. It would be a bad accident, and we understand that vehicles, when you’re moving buses or vans or personal cars, there’s always the risk of an accident. Churches need to be aware that there is a liability for the ministry in terms of who they allow to drive, what vehicles they use, how they maintain or manage their fleet. And so that’s one area. Then the other one is children’s ministry. And we’ve watched in the news, whether it’s a Catholic church or the Baptist church or any other ministry, being hit hard with these allegations of child abuse and mishandling that. Churches need to realize in today’s world it’s very important, I believe, if a child is safe anywhere, they should be safe at church. And so very important that churches understand they need to screen their workers. They need to have written policies, for example, the “two worker rule” being an excellent policy. And then number three, they need to report suspicions of child abuse. It’s very important that churches understand the “culture of cover-up” will put you in court. And worse than putting you in the court, it puts children at risk.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, what kind of tools and resources are available to churches to be proactive in defending against legal challenges, or circumstances that you’ve been talking about, that could lead to the potential legal challenges?
DAVID GIBBS: Tools or resources: Number one, it takes time and attention. It’s kinda like, people like to talk about diet or exercise a lot of times: Some day, I’m gonna lose weight or I’m going to work on being a little more fit. And it’s an easy thing to procrastinate. And so, dealing with legal issues or other things, I think sometimes pastors have a mindset of almost: If I ignore it, it just doesn’t exist. Not realizing, that thing you ignore could end up being the greatest risk to your ministry. And so, encouraging them to realize the importance of it.
I also tell folks, there’s a lot of concern about the church, they talked about people leaving churches. Younger people are looking for churches that handle these areas well. In particular, younger people want to see a church that’s open and transparent with its finances. They don’t want back-filled room and mystery as to what happens with the dollars. They want transparency. And then obviously, younger people are most concerned about the safety and protection of their children. They want to have doors that are clear and teachers that have been screened and situations that are well run. And if you say, our church is aging out or graying out and we’re losing folks, realize that sometimes taking a proactive leadership role in dealing with the legal and financial health of your church can also help grow your church.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know you also talk about physical safety in churches. Where do you recommend churches start in regard to evaluating their overall campus security?
DAVID GIBBS: An excellent point, because we live in a world where one shooter can create that 5 to 10 minutes no ministry ever wants to live through. We certainly don’t want people to live in fear, but increasingly we’re in a more violent society. And so, what I encourage pastors and ministry leaders—and this is really the person at the top—needs to start building, what I call, a “culture of prevention.” Now what I mean by that, I’m not asking that older people have weapons or anything like that. That’s a response, but the culture of prevention is where everybody is working together to be looking around, to be paying attention, to be evaluating risks. Certainly, we want to greet visitors. Certainly, we want to minister to hurting people. Certainly, we don’t want to be judgmental as people walk in the door. But we also need to be evaluating: Is this person a safety risk to our children or to our congregation? And building that culture of prevention ministry-wide, whether it’s greeters or people in the pews. They see things and they wonder about things, and this person’s on the sex abuse registry and they now see them on campus, or they noticed something, but then what do they do with it? And what I strongly recommend is that you have somebody—Smaller churches, it might be the pastor. Bigger churches may have a head of education, head a security or safety— but where do they take that information? And if the churches would all build on that culture of prevention, and then knowing where to take that information, the hope and prayers there would never be that moment where they would have to respond to an act of violence on their campus.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know one topic, David, that you cover in the seminars that may not necessarily come to immediate attention is the financial health of the church. In your opinion, how does the financial condition of a church really fit into the overall concept of protecting that ministry?
DAVID GIBBS: At a number of levels, John. First of all, stewardship is unto the Lord, I mean, this is the Lord’s money. And so for example, being embezzled against, and I’ve had churches every week that have had people come in and embezzle. They haven’t stolen money. They haven’t just done it from a nonprofit organization. They’ve stolen from God, in my opinion. So, making sure that you’re careful with the Lord’s assets, that they’re managed well. But then also, the transparency. Younger people, good church members, want to see a church that handles its finances well. They’ll be encouraged to give more, they’ll be encouraged to give consistently, if they have confidence that the church is handling the funds appropriately. That means having policies. That means having financial teams. That means having things in place where there’s accountability and where… Embezzlement, obviously, could happen anywhere, but the risk would become quite low because the church has taken the time. Now, church safety policies, church financial policies are very individualized. I don’t want to put people in a panic. Somebody says: Look, we’re 20 people, we’re a small church, It’s just my wife and I. Well, you’re going to have a much smaller, less sophisticated, safety plan and financial plan. Large ministries with thousands of people on the campus each weekend, it would be reasonably expected that it will be way more sophisticated. But taking the time to properly evaluate your ministry finances, evaluate your minister safety risks, evaluate your children or other ministry outreaches, and making sure that you have the plan in place to protect your ministry. In my mind, that’s good stewardship and will let your church be healthy and strong.
JOHN RUSTIN: That sounds great. David, what do you see as the number one impediment to churches implementing safety strategies and the kinds of things that you talk about in protecting your church seminars, and who is responsible? Who really should take the responsibility for pursuing the implementation of these strategies in the church setting?
DAVID GIBBS: John, the number one problem is a pastoral or ministry leader may come to a seminar, get good information, and they go back and they run into what I call the old spirit of: We’ve never done it that way before.
JOHN RUSTIN: I’ve never heard that.
DAVID GIBBS: You’re just locked in and bless God, you know, God’s taken us this far, we’ll just keep going. And in some respect, they view acting sort of irresponsibly or like it’s still the 1970s as an acceptable mode of ministry. But what I encourage folks is, you have to go back and you have to encourage and educate your people. Number one, times have changed. I mean just a simple one: The old days of boys with boys and girls with girls was a bulletproof plan for child safety. Now with the whole change in culture, that’s not necessarily a good way to approach it. And so you have to look at things differently. Times have changed. But then number two: I remind folks, nothing wrong needs to happen in your church for an allegation to be made. We watch whether it’s a Supreme Court nominee or others, that just an allegation can have such a devastating impact. And so it’s very important that the church not just protect against bad actors, but also operate in such a way that they can withstand any false accusations.
JOHN RUSTIN: Overall, David, do you believe that things in our country are getting better or getting worse as it comes to the implementation and in the necessity for having these types of protections in churches?
DAVID GIBBS: We’re watching where, certainly, people are beginning to realize the need, and I think we have that through whether it’s a shooting where 50 lives are lost on the church campus, or whether it’s the Catholic church acknowledging different things in the news. The media has raised awareness in the culture that as a church, a nonprofit organization, we need to be more careful. But that still doesn’t mean that it’s not hard work and that it requires some diligence and, like anything worth achieving, you need to set goals and move forward a step at a time. And so I think we’re watching a lot of good churches work on it. And by the way, I will say this, not to be in any way negative towards any church, but the churches that choose to bury their head and ignore these issues, most likely aren’t going to survive. They will die out or they will get litigated out of existence. And so, if a church wants to not just survive into the future, but literally thrive, these are key issues that they need to be looking at and working on.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, we’re unfortunately just about out of time for our conversation this week. But before we go, I know many of our listeners have been interested by our conversation and would love to get their hands on some helpful information about how they can implement a strategy in their church to protect their church. But also where can our listeners go to learn more about the National Center for Life and Liberty and the Protect Your Church legal seminars?
DAVID GIBBS: They can go to our website and ncll.org or they can call us again, 888-233-6255. And I would do this, John, anybody that emails or contacts and mentions your broadcast and that we had this conversation on air, I’ll send them a free legal resource, a document checklist for their church, something they could look through, think about, help evaluate. And that may be a first step for them to do, kind of, an internal evaluation and we would send that as a gift to them.
JOHN RUSTIN: And with that, David Gibbs, III, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and your very important work to preserve life and liberty across our nation. And we pray that the Lord will go with you and protect you as you seek to minister to many, many across our land. Thank you.
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