Should a church use NDAs?
In the corporate world, a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is commonplace. It is a legally binding contract that establishes a confidential relationship. By signing the agreement, the parties involved agree that any sensitive information they may obtain will not be made available to others. This is also sometimes called a confidentiality agreement.
And it may be necessary, for example, before discussions between companies that explore potential joint ventures. NDAs allow them to freely share information and keep that information from competitors. Or for employees to sign to protect an employer’s confidential business information. For example, if you work for Apple, you may be asked to sign an NDA to protect Apple from sharing your research for the next iPhone with, say, Google. It is also common to include non-disparagement clauses in an NDA, preventing employees from making disparaging remarks about the company during and after employment. Breaking an NDA can lead to prosecution and heavy fines.
When it comes to protecting a company’s products and technology from competition, that’s fine. What doesn’t go well is when NDAs are used to shield leaders and organizations from bad behavior. What is even worse is when they are used for this purpose by churches.
Yet it is what we are learning now that has swept the church world. Scandal after scandal involving church and ministry leaders exposed the extensive use of NDAs which, until the dam broke, kept silent about those who might have revealed the person’s shadow life or organisation.
Looking for his book Celebrities for JesusKatelyn Beaty spoke with a former employee of a Southern megachurch whose pastor has been criticized for lavish spending, prosperity theology and authoritarian leadership style.
The employee told me that once they joined, “there was an instant spirit of fear”. The staff had to get up every time the pastor entered the room and once planned an event where the pastor would step out on a red carpet to take pictures with the attendees.
But of course the employee had signed an NDA. There was no way for her to directly notify staff or attendees of what was happening behind closed doors.
One church, faced with a petition from current and former members to stop using NDAs, responded on its website:
In the past, some of our separation or termination agreements have required employees to agree “not to disparage or slander the reputation of the church, its directors, pastors, and employees, or any member/participant of the church. ‘church’ and also state that the church ‘agrees to abide by this same condition’ towards the staff member. The heart of this was to remind the church and the Christian employee to act in the way of Christ, avoiding destructive gossip and slander that cause division rather than unity.
However, the group calling for an end to the church’s use of NDAs says the church uses NDAs to silence victims of abuse.
Let me be as clear as I know how to be: there is no place for NDAs in the life of a Christian church.
There is simply no proprietary information that we have to protect, or at least want to protect. If a church has a breakthrough in terms of an outreach strategy, why on earth would you want to keep that from other churches? Why would you see another church as a competition in the first place?
And there is no justification for using NDAs to protect church members from current and former staff members who have knowledge about their personal lives. As stated on the #NDAfree site, launched as a global movement with a vision to see individuals, Christian organizations and local churches free from the misuse of NDAs, “professional staff are bound by principles of confidentiality ( lawyers, physicians, ordained persons, counselors), for which they may be subject to formal complaints if they breach confidentiality.
Also, as a pastor of a large church (and it seems that large churches are the ones most often trying to justify the use of NDAs) you don’t need an NDA to protect the base church data and passwords. Volunteers do not have access to sensitive information through the database, and most employees have limited access beyond contact information and level of involvement. But regardless of the level of access, once the job is terminated, the employee’s password (each staff member has their own) is rendered invalid.
I can think of only one reason why a church would use far-reaching, all-encompassing non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements – to keep the people who work there or serve quiet about things they might see or live. And the only reason you would want to keep a staff member or volunteer quiet would be to protect the church or its leaders from being exposed for such things as sexually inappropriate or abusive behavior.
I completely agree that as followers of Christ, we should not engage in gossip or slander of others. But as Beaty writes, “The Bible praises people who love the truth and desire it to be known in its entirety…. In many large churches and organizations, NDAs have served to conceal the truth and protect the image of key leaders, allowing them to continue to harm those in their care.
And telling the truth, she adds, is not gossip or slander.
James Emery White
Alexandra Twin, “Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA),” InvestopediaJuly 10, 2022, read online.
“Non-Disparagement Clause” ContractsLawyerread online.
Julie Roys, “Echo Church Defends NDAs After Petition Gathers Nearly 700 Signatures”, The Roys ReportSeptember 3, 2022, read online.
#NDAfree website, access here.
Katelyn Beaty, “NDAs Are a Tool for Toxic Church Cultures,” Religious News ServiceSeptember 8, 2022, read online.
Katelyn Beaty, Celebrities for Jesus.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.