April 30, 2013
Confidentiality Agreements: Church Security at What Price?
Churches are increasingly seeking to protect themselves from...themselves.
In my experience most people have a very weak understanding of church membership. Rather than seeing their membership to a congregation as an interdependent commitment to a body (think of Paul's metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12), they view membership through the lens of our consumer culture. They associate "membership" in a church as a religious version of the relationship one has with Costco, Netflix, or AmazonPrime.
To combat this some churches have undertaken the admirable task of elevating what a commitment to a congregation means. They've clearly articulated expectations and formalized the process of church membership in a manner that reflects the gravity and biblical roots of the idea. In addition, the process of membership is also a way of protecting the flock from wolves who seek to prey upon God's people. As reported in this interview with Ken Sande from Peacemakers, membership is both a congregational and legal means of protecting the church.
But can this pursuit of security go too far? When a copy of the confidentiality agreement from Elevation Church hit the web a few weeks ago, it raised red flags for many people.
It has become increasingly common for churches to issue such contracts to members or volunteers. Sadly such forms are often necessary in our litigious society, but Elevation's contract, in some people's view, takes things too far.
For example, the document forbids volunteers from disclosing confidential information they may encounter in the course of their participation at the church. This is usually a means of protecting church attenders' privacy. No one wants to discover the Amway salesman got their contact information from the church office. Likewise, prayer or healing ministries function best when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Elevation's confidentiality agreement, however, goes far beyond protecting members. It focuses much of it's language on securing the financial details of its staff and leadership initiatives. It reads:
Confidential Information includes,but is not limited to, such information relating to: (i) Church participants, including lists, contact information, prayer requests personal information; (ii) the Church’s finances, including personal financial/salary information related to the Church’s financial statements, balance sheets, offerings information, cash flow, forecasts and cost analyses; (iii) the Church’s plans and projections for opportunities for new or developing ideas; and/or (iv) the Church’s research and development activities and technical data.
The contract also gives the church's leadership extensive legal leverage over any volunteer that discloses any information even if required by the law or courts to do so, if the volunteer does not inform the church first or seek to limit the extent of their disclosure. You can read more specific critiques of the Elevation Church's contract here and here.
I'm not interested in a take down of Elevation. Their contract is just the latest from a series of churches that provokes the question--What price are we willing to pay to protect church organizations? The reason I say "church organizations" rather than "churches" is because these contracts are clearly written to ensure the protection of the 501c3 entities who created them, and not necessarily the women, men, and children who are the Body of Christ.
I'm very much in favor of church membership, as well as a call to commitment and protection of the flock of God. I'm worried, however, that contracts like these are only widening the gap between the clergy and the laity. Rather than strengthening the biblical model of shepherds protecting the sheep, these documents appear to exists in order to protect the shepherds from the sheep.
I don't have a simple answer to this trends. As I stated earlier, we live in a highly litigious society in which not even churches can be afford to be naive. However, in our desire for security perhaps church leaders need to be asking better questions:
-Who are we called to protect?
-When does organizational prudence cross over into organizational idolatry?
-What processes do we have in place to settle church conflicts internally before going to civil authorities?
-Will issuing a contract advance or diminish the trust of leaders?
I welcome your thoughts on church confidentiality agreements. Have you been asked to sign one? Was the contract reasonable, or did it raise red flags in your mind? And what do you make of the growing trend, particularly at larger churches, toward these legally binding contracts with volunteers? Share you thoughts in the comment section below.