View Cart

Local Church and Legal Issues

Truth In Love 381

Why is it crucial for churches to consult local legal counsel in a cultural environment that is changing quickly?

Sep 19, 2022

Dale Johnson: Today, I’m so delighted to have with us Todd Sorrell on the podcast once again. Todd is a California state license lawyer. He has been practicing for 25 years. He works with disputes of different kinds and I wish I knew all the legal lingo, I’m sure he can fill us in on that. He works at the state level, the federal level, and also works with international arbitrations as well. He graduated with his J.D. from UCLA, go Bruins. He also graduated with his Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling from The Master’s University. He’s ACBC certified, and Todd just brings a wealth of knowledge to this issue when we discuss legalities and how pastors and churches, and counselors should think about legal issues.

I’m so grateful Todd that you’re here with us. We need to walk hand in hand, especially in the days that we live in today. And so, thank you so much for being here with us on the podcast. 

Todd Sorrell: Glad to be here, Dale. 

Dale Johnson: So, as we think about this issue of local lawyers, certainly, we believe the churches and autonomous thing and we’re supposed to be led by Christ, who is our Head and elders who lead us and shepherd us well. But we also recognize that we live in a society, we live in communities, we live in states that are under regulations and governments are a part of the plan of God for society to help keep peace and so on and so forth. And so, it’s important that we understand there are distinctions of authority. But we also recognize that there are several places where some of these things overlap. And I think it’s important for us to think about. I know for me several issues as a counselor have risen over my past as dealing with different issues in the counseling room and even pastors coming to me asking then what should we do about this? And inevitably, we wind up talking about the issues we need to be asking lawyers some of these things because we’re unsure or I’ll have people from different states who ask questions about various things. And a lot of it is specific to a specific state and so, man, it’s so important, and as we think about this issue, where do we get legal counsel? How do we go about getting legal counsel, things like that.

Let’s start with this question, does every single church just need to go out and get legal counsel to hire a lawyer?

Todd Sorrell: Not necessarily. Let’s make something clear, not every church has the same legal needs. A tiny, rural church might have very different needs than a mega-church in an urban area. That doesn’t mean that the tiny church doesn’t need legal counsel which a mega-church does. What I would just say is that I believe it’s important for a local church if possible to have a relationship with a local lawyer. That doesn’t mean retain him, that doesn’t mean pay any fees, that doesn’t mean anything other than having a relationship. So, that if something happens, you can turn to a person who is someone that you trust in the legal area for a legal perspective. Now, at some point, it might turn into something where legal fees need to be paid, but I think up front at least in a preventative way, it is wise to have a relationship well in advance of legal needs arising so as to avoid legal needs.

Dale Johnson: Now we started with this whole thing with the title and I think this is crucial, talking about local churches and so wherever you are and we used the phrase needing a local lawyer. Now, why is that an important thing that churches would seek out local legal counsel? 

Todd Sorrell: And that’s a great question because a lot of people think that, oh, I know, somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody might be another state and I’ll make a call to him, and he’ll tell me what I need to know and I could then just figure it out, and rely upon that. Bad idea. Every jurisdiction whether it’s a state, different cities, or different courtrooms even have different laws. There are local rules. There are local, local rules. And so, in that regard, I believe it’s important that you have a local lawyer handling the matter. Now, I practice all over, I’ve had cases and trials in various states. I’ve handled international arbitrations, but oftentimes, I will secure even for myself a local lawyer who can help us or help the client walk through the local law issues.

Now, don’t think that just because someone’s a lawyer, even if he’s a local lawyer, that he knows what he’s doing and this will probably get into a further discussion, but we have to keep in mind that even a local lawyer might not be experienced or practiced in the area that you need counsel on. But I think it’s important to begin with the local church at least establish a relationship with someone who was around, so they can rely upon someone who knows what they’re doing, who knows the ins and outs of the law, whether it’s on a transactional side or whether on their litigation side, so as to avoid any problems, and to avoid tripping up in a way that could be costly in the future. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think that’s critical, and especially in areas as it relates to us relative to counseling because the state statutes, each individual state offers statutes related to the issue of the practice of counseling. And so, when we talk about an informed consent or consent to counsel, the language on that document needs to be driven by our local statutes, our state statutes. So, we’re not appearing as a licensed professional counselors in that particular state. So, I think it’s important in so many ways that we get local wisdom there from legal counsel.

Now pastors and counselors may be thinking sort of in abstract terms, as we talk about legal issues sort of broadly, and so, maybe it would help if we bring some examples to bear. So, what are some particular examples may be of different situations or scenarios that should prompt a church to say, you know what, we need to go seek a lawyer for counsel here?

Todd Sorrell: Dale, there are a lot of different situations that come to my mind where a church or a counselor or a counseling organization would want to seek counsel from a lawyer. For example, let me just start in broad terms, we’ll talk about the church first. You might have somebody like at the end of the church service, oftentimes churches have what they call prayer partners or people up front who are standing near the podium and they’re told at the end if you have a need for prayer, come on up and talk to our people and these are typically just lay people in the church that they’re volunteering. They might be wise Christians, they’re standing there giving their time and they really are concerned about people. And take, for example, let’s say a 16-year-old girl comes up, and says, “I’ve been abused by my stepfather.” And the person says, “Okay, what do I do with that?” Now, of course, they put their arms around her. They pray for her and then two things happen. That person who is praying is wondering, “Am I supposed to involve leadership here? Am I supposed to tell the pastor?” And of course, the girl says, “Don’t tell anybody, okay? I need this to be kept confidential, but I need prayer on this.” So that person’s thinking, do I have the right? Or the obligation even to tell? This is a minor keep in mind, and then all of a sudden the back of the church you hear, somebody says, “Stephanie, come on, time to go.” You look back and guess who it is. Mom and stepfather, the very person that she said had been abusing her. What do you do in that situation?

Now, I raised an issue like that, not to scare anybody, not to say you have to have a lawyer, but these are things that maybe should be thought of in advance of them happening. So that the people who are helping out and leading a prayer, for example, might know the law on the subject, they might know who to go to at that point. They might have some signals to be able to say, “Hey we need to run some interference here real quick, to keep her here for a little bit longer so that we can address this issue, maybe involved the authorities if we have to.”

Take another situation where you’re counseling somebody who has come to you with unrighteous anger and you work through them, you have an eight-week session, things go great, he seems repentant, he’s worked through, he has resolved things, his tone, his behavior seems to modify, everybody agrees. He stops counseling or this discipleship process, at least in the formal setting. He goes back and let’s say two months later, explodes in anger and he injures his young child, and the wife then threatens to sue the counselor, and the church, and says, “You should have sent him to anger management classes.” Wouldn’t you like to have a document in your file? For example, at that point to says, we don’t do that. We’re not responsible for sending someone to psychotherapy or to prescribe medication. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t care. What it means is that there are certain steps you might be able to take that might insulate you from liability, and these are situations that are not caused by the church, is not caused by the counseling, but oftentimes people are looking to blame somebody. So, wouldn’t it be wise in advance to at least consult with somebody or consider legal counsel in those situations or in advance of those situations?

Now, I can give you example after example of things that have happened. People lying about what happened at the church. For example, someone who used to work for the church says, “Oh, I reported some things and they told me to ignore it and not to say anything about it. Because they didn’t want to hurt somebody else in the church.” And you realize that’s just nonsense. This person used to work for us and she was fired because she was stealing from the church and then you want to set the record straight but then someone gets the bright idea to say, wait a minute, that information comes from her personnel file. Is there a legal obligation to keep that confidential? Maybe we should talk to a lawyer? And so, these are again, just examples but these are things that might raise at least the flag in somebody’s mind to realize that local counsels might be wise to consult with prior to making decisions. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think your recommendation to seek someone out before all this happens and to get to know them, to trust them. You don’t want to be trying to find legal counsel on a Monday after you’ve heard somebody’s been abused on a Sunday. You’re still sorting out what to do about the situation, and that’s not the time to make that happen.

Now, let’s just say that I’m a local pastor or an elder at a church or I sit in church leadership in some way shape, or form, and I’m hearing everything that you’re saying, I’m tracking with you, and I’m seeing, man, this is really helpful and when we need to go about doing this because man, I see some spots where we might be vulnerable where we’re not prepared for this. How does a church, if you’re talking to me as an elder, how does a church go about choosing a local lawyer?

Todd Sorrell: Dale, we’re going to address this in the book that’s coming out in greater detail, but let me say this in short. When you’re trying to choose a local lawyer, you are choosing someone just like you would choose any other profession, you talk to people, you pray about it, and you get evaluations from other clients perhaps. You are looking for someone who you think has the expertise in the area you want, or if you’re not sure what legal needs will arise, you’re looking for a trusted legal advisor. When you’re sitting with this person first you never pay for a consultation, you should just meet a lawyer, if they try to charge you for a consultation, find another lawyer. So you’re meeting the person, do you get along with the person? Is he sincere? You want someone that you can communicate with well. For example, if he cannot explain something to you clearly, the chances are he won’t be able to explain something to somebody else clearly.

So, you’re going through these very practical evaluations, and you can look, for example, in the church. If you have a big enough church, chances are you might have a lawyer there. That being said, don’t assume or let anybody else assume that the person in your church is the right lawyer for the job, might not have the expertise or he might not be a very good lawyer, and he might be a person who thinks that he has to be the one called for every situation, and that’s not the person you want. You want somebody if you’re looking for a lawyer who will be the trusted advisor to handle the legal needs.

Now, the next question that would arise is, does the lawyer have to be a Christian? The answer is no. The lawyer does not have to be a Christian, but I can say that a Christian lawyer sometimes provides a perspective that a non-Christian lawyer cannot and will understand things that the church wants to do or does not want to do in a way that a non-Christian cannot. For example, a church may very well say that it does not want to be particularly aggressive with a particular claimant because of Christian or biblical principles. A non-Christian might not understand that legal strategy but our audience is God and 1 Corinthians 10:31. I always go back to this first, do all things to the glory of God. How do you as a church select a legal adviser to the glory of God? How do you as a church handle legal issues to the glory of God? Whether they’re friendly legal issues or conflict-related issues. So, you’re looking for someone who can help fulfill that role, and also, you’re looking for someone who will wisely handle church finances, the funds. Get that resolved upfront. Legal bills is an area where issues arise, and that’s why you need to address them upfront. Don’t assume that a Christian lawyer is going to give you a freebie and don’t assume that there’s going to be a lower rate. There might very well be and truthfully I think there should be, but you just need to address that upfront to avoid problems because the money you’re using to pay that lawyer is money that comes from church members tithing and that’s God’s resource. Don’t waste it. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, we want to be good stewards even in this particular area, and I just have to say, thinking through this issue and to think about how many pitfalls that there are where we can make missteps, again unintentionally. So, I think the wisdom that you’re giving us here, Todd, is very needed, and I hope that this is going to be an encouragement for all of you as counselors and as pastors as you seek to lead the church well and to shepherd your people to the glory of God.

Helpful Resources:

Legal Issues in Biblical Counseling: Direction and Help for Churches and Counselors