April 25th, 2017

Risk Management for Churches and Schools

Risk management is not a concept that most people readily connect with churches, but congregants at a mega church in Colorado Springs, CO recently experienced the results of good risk management first-hand. Although the outcome was tragic, it could have been a lot worse. In December 2007, a gunman opened fire in the church parking lot and later walked into the church as a service was letting out. A former police officer working as a plainclothes security officer for the church shot the gunman as he entered the church. The pastor credited her with preventing more bloodshed, saying “There could have been a great loss of life yesterday, and she probably saved over 100 lives.”

Risk management, from a theological perspective, is more than protecting buildings, preventing lawsuits, or lowering costs. Its primary purpose is not to remove risk from ministry. Rather, risk management embodies care giving leadership. The goal is to empower congregations and schools, through acts of leadership and caring, to differentiate good risks from bad risks, and to the extent possible, eliminate those things that harm people and ministry. In the biblical image of the good Shepherd, risk management is not self-serving, but self-sacrificing.

Risk has always been a part of ministry. In fact, risk-taking is an essential part of ministry. Yet, not all risks are good ones. A need exists to differentiate good risks from bad risks, and develop some basis for distinguishing those that enhance ministry from those that harm it.

"Risk management embodies care-giving leadership."

From a faith perspective, risk-taking emerges from a different set of assumptions and values than are found in the business community or even in many nonprofit organizations. The driving force behind risk-taking in ministry is that it expresses the love of God and neighbor.

Perhaps no better biblical image exists for risk management than that of the shepherd. The shepherd cares for the flock. This caring involves both risk-taking and risk management. Jesus warned that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). The good shepherd, alert to those dangers, guards the flock. Providing this care requires knowledge and understanding of what the risks are and the steps necessary to protect the sheep and the shepherd. The good shepherd is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to guard the flock. The shepherd is both a risk taker and a risk manager. Ministry always contains both of these dimensions of risk.

From a theological perspective, little has been written about the art and science of risk management. As an applied discipline, risk management is perceived as being more central to the insurance industry than to faith communities. That is reflected in the available literature as well as in the language of risk management. While the concepts have direct application to churches, the terminology is somewhat foreign. For example, most books on risk management differentiate between pure risks and speculative risks. These two concepts are not commonly used with respect to ministry, yet they do have significance. Pure risks have no upside. If they occur, the best you can hope for is that nothing bad happens. Speculative risks can generate losses or gains as well as breaking even.

Churches and schools can be sued just like any other organization.

Today, certain types of events tend to be handled quite differently from how they were handled just a few generations ago. Churches are sued just like any other organization. A number of factors contribute to the increased level of litigation that churches experience today. First, litigation has evolved into a frequent and acceptable form of settling conflicts. Over 20 million civil lawsuits occur annually in the United States. Taking someone to court has become popularized through television programs as a form of a personal entertainment. Secondly, society is becoming saturated with attorneys.

The prudent risk managers transfer the risk of loss to an insurance company that specializes in protecting churches, schools, and their officers and directors with a wide selection of insurance coverage. They do this by paying the insurance company a relatively small amount each year so that if they should lose property or suffer a liability claim, they would not be ruined, but instead, would have money available or have legal representation. It is best to contact a good insurance broker who understands non-profit operations.

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