Tackling Potential Legal Issues in the Church
A national conference offers a balance of professional expertise and spiritual fellowship for Christian leaders.
Tackling Potential Legal Issues in the Church

As the current president of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), Attorney Sally Wagenmaker is well-acquainted with myriad potential legal issues facing the church today. With this in mind, she led efforts to add a “Pastors’ Forum” to the CLS national conference taking place this October 31 to November 3 in Chicago.

Editor Matthew Branaugh recently interviewed Wagenmaker about CLS and the Pastors’ Forum, and the ways churches can secure legal representation when needs arise and resources are limited.

What speakers and resources will the Pastors’ Forum feature?

CLS seeks to liberally share its attorney resources with pastors who want to learn about legal compliance, liability, risk management, and best practices for handling legal issues, as well as about legal aid resources and how to shepherd and care for the legal professional within their congregations.

The Forum is aimed at senior pastors, assistant pastors, executive or administrative pastors, children’s ministry leaders, and other ministry leaders who are interested in learning about these legal areas. The registration fee is only $30 and includes lunch.

The daylong forum will begin with an introduction to CLS’s legal aid program, followed by the religious liberty plenary session featuring a nationally renowned panel of experts addressing recent legal developments and key concerns.

The forum will include a lunchtime Q&A session featuring a panel of nonprofit lawyers addressing common questions arising for churches. The afternoon will consist of two workshop sessions focusing on abuse-prevention policies, screening, and best practices, with the option of attending alternative sessions like employment law for nonprofits and ministry investigations.

The day will conclude with plenary speaker Mark Jobe, president of Moody Bible Institute and senior pastor of New Life Community Church. Attendees are welcome to attend other parts of the CLS conference as well.

How will you measure whether the forum is a success for attendees?

The Pastors’ Forum will be a success if the attendees are better equipped to more fully understand what legal issues may arise in their churches, how to prioritize and handle them, where they can find resources to address them, and what specifically to do with certain areas of concern addressed through workshop sessions.

A deeper level of success will be achieved if each attending pastor or other ministry leader is encouraged and strengthened in their faith journey.

For pastors and church leaders who aren’t familiar with CLS, how would you describe the organization?

CLS is a grassroots ministry for lawyers, law students, and others connected to the legal profession that started in 1961. Chapters consisting of attorneys and law students exist across the nation.

CLS focuses on religious liberty, legal aid, lawyers, and law students. At its core, CLS equips lawyers and law students to live out their faith through the legal profession, and to better understand what that means in terms of Christian community, religious freedoms, and the provision of legal assistance to anyone in need.

Above all, CLS members proclaim Jesus as Lord through all, and thereby seek to promote justice for the poor, to promote religious liberty, to honor and educate about the sanctity of human life, and to teach and assist with biblical conflict resolution. For all these reasons, CLS earnestly seeks pastors’ support and partnership to build up Christian communities, to help each other in our daily walks, and to serve together.

The CLS national conference runs October 31 to November 3 in Chicago. You’ve helped plan the conference and you decided to add a daylong Pastors’ Forum to the lineup this year. What motivated you to try this?

It seems only natural and fitting, and what God has called CLS to do. CLS is all about equipping and serving together in the kingdom. This opportunity seems ideal in a metropolitan area like Chicago with so many churches and so much need. The CLS annual conference is always a fantastic “come to the well” experience for learning, fellowship, spiritual growth, and incredible connections.

The Pastors’ Forum builds naturally on our conference’s annual features, including legal aid training. We desire to share these resources as well with pastors, to enjoy beloved Christian community, and to learn together.

This interview is just a small part of Branaugh’s in-depth conversation with Wagenmaker. For further insights on navigating the many potential legal issues churches face, check out the articles “Protecting Your Church from Lawsuits” and “When Is It Wise to Pay for Legal Counsel?

Matthew Branaugh is Editor of Content and Business Development for Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax. He is secretary/treasurer of the CLS chapter at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law this year and spoke about his experiences as a law student on the “Lawyers for Jesus” podcast, including the CLS conference.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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