The Skinny on Church COVID-19 Risk and Responsibility
As more churches throughout the North Pacific Union territory reopen their facilities for worship services, church leaders and local church boards are carefully assessing risk and liability. Each conference in the North Pacific Union Conference has developed reopening guidelines for the local churches within their territory.
But “what if’s” linger: What if there are conflicting guidelines? What if a church member refuses to follow the guidelines? What if a pastor refuses to follow the guidelines?
These scenarios raise legitimate concerns regarding the safety of worshippers and the protection of the church from liability should someone contract COVID. Here are some answers to common questions.
Q. What if there is a conflict between among state, county and local guidelines?
A. The counsel I’ve been giving for a year remains the same: Follow the most restrictive guidelines. While the natural tendency is to follow the more lenient guidelines, following the more restrictive guidelines puts the church in the best defensible position in the event a COVID-19 claim is brought against the church.
Q. How can a church member who isn’t in leadership help protect the church from liability?
A. Regardless of our personal opinions about COVID-19 restrictions, cooperate with all church, local, state and federal guidelines to the best of your ability while at or serving the church. We show we are Christians by our love, not by making things difficult on church leaders and pastors or by endangering others.
Q. What if a church member refuses to comply with the guidelines?
A. Reasonable efforts should be made to have the church member comply. A private conversation — even repeatedly — would be appropriate. (For obvious reasons, I do not advise forcibly removing the member from the church.) Seat them in an area that is a safe distance from worshippers and continue to counsel with them on the importance of a safe environment. So long as reasonable efforts are made to apply the guidelines, the church’s liability exposure will be limited.
Q. What if a pastor “goes rogue” and does not follow guidelines?
A. Simple: the local conference is subject to liability. Period. Under the employment legal doctrine of respondeat superior — “let the employer answer” — a church pastor, as a conference employee, is an extension of the local conference. The conference would be exposed to liability for any COVID claims related to the pastor’s actions.
Q. Can we just sign COVID-19 liability waivers and remove all risk and liability?
A. No. Liability waivers do not provide absolute protection to an organization but is only one layer of protection to an organization. The most effective layer of protection from liability is having a clear set of local church guidelines and, most importantly, applying them in your local facility — meanwhile also complying with local civic guidelines.
Even though we are now one year into the COVID-19 era, regulations and guidelines continue to produce more uncertainty than certainty. As church leaders, be clear, be safe and be reasonable in navigating and applying guidelines to your local churches. As church members, be loving to each other and cooperative with leaders who are doing their best to keep everyone — and the church — safe while carrying on creative and effective ministry despite the challenges.
Andre M. Wang serves as NPUC general counsel and director of public affairs and religious liberty.