Q&A: Disruptive People in Church

What is a church’s responsibility for protecting others?

What is a church’s responsibility to a disruptive person in the church? I am talking about someone who lost his temper and yelled at someone during service. The leaders escorted him out of service then held him accountable with daily phone calls for a week or two. However, no one checked up on the safety of his wife and children, even when the wife told the pastor she feared her husband would become physically violent with her and/or the children.

In general, the law does not impose a duty to warn third parties about dangers. Of course, exceptions to this general rule exist. The duty to warn exists only when the harm is reasonably foreseeable and the individual or church has a duty to warn about this foreseeable danger. Since this is a state law issue, the details about how this law is applied may vary from state to state.

First, one has to determine the relationships. The relationship must create a duty to warn. If the church is not providing professional or pastoral counseling to both the husband and wife, then it does not have a legal duty to warn the wife about the husband, or vice versa. If no professional or pastoral counseling relationship exists with either spouse, then the law will not likely impose a duty to warn the spouse.

Next, the harm must be reasonably foreseeable. Unless the church counselor has specific information (“I will kill her next Thursday at 7:00 pm while she is at home.”), then the risk of harm is not likely reasonably foreseeable.

One must also look at whether the church has a duty to keep certain information confidential. If a professional or pastoral counseling relationship exists, the church may have a duty to keep the threat information confidential. If a specific threat of significant bodily harm arises (i.e., reasonably foreseeable), the church must breach this confidentiality and inform the target of the threat and the authorities. If the threat of significant harm involves a child, the church also has a duty to report such threat to the authorities under child abuse reporting statutes.

Finally, we cannot address this issue without looking at the moral issues involved. Those subjected to abuse frequently look to the church for help. The church cannot turn them away. The church should keep a list of abused women’s shelters that will accept referrals from the church. if the abuse could result in serious harm, the church should encourage the spouse to report the abuse to the police and move into a women’s shelter with her children. If the abused spouse chooses to stay in the home, the church should refer her and the spouse to a church approved counselor. If the couple balks at going to a counselor, the church may encourage such assistance by offering to pay for the counseling for a limited period. The church may provide mentor couples to assist the couple in a nonprofessional capacity.

Response based on applicable authority as of October 12, 2009. Not legal advice, just legal information.

Frank Sommerville is a both a CPA and attorney, and a longtime Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax.

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