All of us understand that when you have something of value, you protect it. We may differ on defining value, such as whether it is based on a monetary or sentimental cost associated with the item, but the principle of making sure that an item of value is protected is one that most of us subscribe to. It has therefore become common that when someone shares a great idea, name, or logo for a business for that person to be counseled by lawyers and novices alike to get a trademark to protect their brilliant creation. People recognize that there is a value to someone’s new concept that warrants a measure of protection from those who may improperly use it or even abuse it.
I. Churches and Items of Value
Churches are not immune to a misuse of items of value.
Unfortunately, the name and therefore the brand of a church can be tarnished if not properly and duly protected. This can happen in many different ways that I have come across during the course of my practice. On one occasion, a member, standing on the principle that all of us are ministers of the gospel, decided to create business cards and a letterhead with the name and logo of the church, and then represented himself as a minister from that church. He then began to operate in the community under the apparent authority of the church but some of his message and conduct was not consistent with the church’s mission. When the church became aware of the issue and kindly requested that he immediately cease and desist, it was with the concern and consideration that if that “minister” engaged in conduct unbecoming of the church, the reputation and value of the church in the community would be negatively affected.
II. The Consequences of Misusing Church Branding
Within the church there are items relating to the church’s brand that must be protected.
When a church is founded with a great name that brings in seasoned saints and sinners alike and a logo that perfectly captures their creative design for all of the signage and literature for the church, the same forethought that there is a value or “brand” of the church that must be preserved and protected is often lost. We just don’t think that people could trade on the name of a church for their own purposes. Churches therefore fail to appreciate that they have and are a brand and that their name can become associated with either much good, or something rather negative.
Churches should also consider the effect that social media can have upon their names or brands. Social Media has become another prime area where a church’s name and brand can be tarnished if not duly protected. Social media pages and accounts can be created by various individuals using the church name, and comments and images can be posted that are contrary to the mission and brand of the church. Many churches have struggled with the best way to regulate the social media pages and accounts while remaining relevant in the world of technology—not to mention how best to engage with Millennials, for whom social media is an integral medium for communication and information.
What is the effect on a church when someone uses its name for a self-serving purpose or engages in conduct that is seemingly authorized by the church because they used the church name or brand to promote themselves? The truth is that without proper safeguards the effect of such actions can be devastating.
Even within the church body there is a need for the church to protect its name. On one occasion, one of the members of a well-known and respected church was arrested. The story was a media firestorm and every time the story was reported, there was a mention of the fact that the person was a member of that particular church. The person’s association to the church had somehow become a part of the story, although the church itself had no involvement in the underlying criminal matter. The issue then spiraled as other well-intentioned members began to give interviews to the media in an effort to protect the brand of their church. Those efforts, however, had the opposite effect and highlighted the church even more in relation to this one member accused of criminal activity. The manner in which a media crisis is handled is critical in protecting the name of the church. The focus of the church should always be on its mission. If the church loses this focus due to negative media or the improper handling of media coverage, then there is a strong possibility of sullying the “brand” of the church.
The value ascribed to the brand of a church comes in intangible and therefore sometimes irreparable forms. That value lies in the church’s goodwill and reputation within its own community, the integrity of the church as seen by outsiders, and the appeal of the church to those who are lost and are seeking a safe harbor.
III. Protecting the Church Brand and Value
For a church facing a situation where their brand has been tarnished and their value affected, or for the church looking to avoid a great loss of value should the unpredictable happen, there are very proactive steps that can be taken to ensure that the church brand and value remain at the level where people see that Christ is emulated rather than obscured by whatever issue is negatively affecting the church’s good name. Steps churches need to take in this area are:
- Recognize the value of the church’s name, reputation, and goodwill. This is earned with service in both your local and global community, by the relationships built through ministry, and by the hard work of the leadership and lay members of the church. You don’t want this hard work undone or diminished.
- Create or use a risk management team. I am a huge proponent of churches having a risk management team that reviews the practices of the church against liability. Standard operating procedure have to include the vetting of protocols in place to ensure that the church is protected. As such, looking at our example of the “minister of the gospel” who used the church name and logo, what physical and cyber security protocols do you have in place to prevent such a theft of your intellectual property? If the manner in which your property is stored is vulnerable, your risk management team can evaluate that risk and make recommendations for more secure options.
- Assign an internal crisis manager/PR person. This person should be part of the risk management team and serve as the point person to address any and every issue concerning your church name. They are the authorized representative/spokesperson of the church. They can set and receive Google alerts on the church and be immediately aware of a pending crisis. As a note, this should not be the pastor, which ensures that leadership is not distracted from keeping the church on track while an issue is being addressed. This person should work with the church board or leadership to have clearly defined duties and tasks should a crisis emerge.
- Engage professionals. Depending on the issue at hand and its effect on the value of the church, it may become necessary to engage professionals to sort out a situation. In the case of the arrested church employee, member, or volunteer and the association of that person to the church, it may become necessary to consult a public relations expert, attorney, or financial expert. Such a professional can offer counsel and help you navigate this territory and choose a proper course of action that will minimize the effect of a crisis on your church. Attorneys are especially needed in order to provide cease and desist notices to anyone who is using your name or logo without permission or to take any additional measures against actions that are causing your church a loss of value or damages.
- Educate staff and volunteers. Many people do not recognize that the name and logo of their church constitutes intellectual property of a corporation and that they should not have access to or use of it without having the proper authority to do so. Just as one cannot use the name and logo of any known business or corporation for one’s own endeavors, one similarly cannot do the same with the name of the church. You may make some great macaroni and cheese, but you can’t take the Kraft name and logo, paste them on your homemade version, and present it as a Kraft brand without facing legal consequences.
- Create a social media policy that you share with members. Most, if not all, churches have social media pages today. In talking to members about posting on your church’s social media pages, remind them that the purpose of the page is to evangelize and disseminate information to members about the church and that no other purpose is allowed. Prayer requests and messages to the pastor or church can be made on your church’s website in a very controlled and private manner. Consequently, for social media pages, I recommend that you use strict privacy settings and only allow postings that have to be approved by an administrator. You can also include disclaimer language regarding the postings as an added measure of protection.
Ultimately, churches must be cognizant that as ambassadors of Christ, the perception associated with an individual church may impact its ability to operate as a soul-winning and life-changing vehicle. As such, there has to be a conscious effort to recognize that a church does, in fact, have a brand and an associated value. That value warrants intentional protection in order to ensure the effectiveness of the church in its immediate and the global community.
Gisele Kalonzo-Douglas is an attorney and president of the Kalonzo-Douglas Group, which provides risk management services to churches and nonprofits. She is also the general counsel and director of business affairs for Bethel Gospel Assembly, a church in New York City.
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