Safer at home or safer at church? Examining small group meetings, now

By Attorney Louis R. Briska

The various State Executive Orders requesting people to stay at home during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic have been commonly referred to as “Stay-at-Home” Orders. The belief held by local, state and federal health officials is that communities can minimize the spread of the Coronavirus by having families stay at home. Historically, most Churches have allowed small ministry groups to meet at the homes of Church members for various good reasons.

If a Church allows, schedules, or has some direct or indirect participation with such ministry activity, the Church may have legal responsibility for this meeting as a “Church-sponsored event”, even though the meeting doesn’t take place at the Church’s facilities. The nexus to liability for a Church-sponsored event often arises in the context of youth camps, retreats and sporting events held off premises.

In the current environment of COVID-19 risk, is a Church safer from a liability standpoint having the small group ministry take place at the Church’s facility or in someone’s house? If the small group meeting occurs in someone’s house, the Church cannot supervise the meeting or undertake health and safety precautions for the event. In addition, homes are inhabited by many people. Management for the Church does not know where household children have been, what they touched, or what has been cleaned and what hasn’t been cleaned.

In the foreseeable future, until the fog of the COVID-19 risk has lifted, ministry meetings may be confined to on-premises meetings. Meeting rooms at Churches, those favorite nook-and-cranny places with comfortable seating, may now have COVID-19 cleaning clipboards at the doorways, noting when the room has been cleaned and made ready for a new group. Even if the various states begin allowing small group meetings (example: 25 or less), the permitted activity will not come with a waiver against COVID-19 liability. Churches, like for-profit businesses, will continue to be responsible for maintaining a safe environment, in some manner.

In the current health and safety environment, absent some state or local guidance on the matter, it appears from an operational risk standpoint, that small group ministry activity, if permitted under a State Executive Order or other state law, is seemingly safer at the Church’s premises than in someone’s house.

Attorney Lou Briska, J.D., C.P.A. has worked with churches and Christian schools nationwide for bond financings and construction projects for more than 30 years. 

Briska was engaged as Underwriter’s Counsel for B.C. Ziegler from 1988 to 2018, including early work with Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren, which was just getting started on its first permanent facility at the time.

He can be reached at (262) 334-7950 or email lou@briskalaw.com.

This article is not intended to be legal advice, and the opinions and statements are the author’s, not necessarily those of Church Executive.

Briska has created a general information booklet entitled “Reopening Ministry Operations.” It’s available for $550 ($200 off the $750 price) for Church Executive readers. Order by calling Tammy at (262) 334-7950 or by emailing lou@briskalaw.com.

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