How to protect your ministry’s facilities and welcome community use
During a community step aerobics class that meets at your church, a woman trips over some exercise equipment and falls, breaking her wrist. You’re sorry she was injured, but you believe she or the class sponsor should pay her medical bills. Yet unless steps are taken ahead of time, there is little to prevent her from suing your ministry for payment.
Such lawsuits are costly, time-consuming, emotionally draining and can damage your ministry’s reputation. They also may be preventable.
The key issue with lending or renting church buildings to outside organizations is liability. As the property owner, your church can be held liable for accidents or injuries, even if you had little to do with the event in question. A secondary issue is security. Ministry items can be damaged or stolen while the building is open for other groups’ events. If you haven’t taken steps to secure valuables, your ministry may bear the cost of replacing missing items. So how can you protect your ministry while opening up your building to the community?
1. Make visiting groups assume liability. Set a policy that all groups borrowing or renting your facilities must sign a building use agreement. Ideally, this written document would contain language requiring the group to:
l Obtain liability insurance with coverage limits that equal or exceed your church policy’s limits.
l Name your church as an additional insured on its policy for any liability damages arising from its activities on your property. (Remember, being named a certificate holder doesn’t provide any protection.)
l Indemnify and hold your church harmless for any liability claim arising from the group’s activities on your property.
l Provide a certificate of insurance proving your church has become an additional insured on the group’s insurance policy.
Make sure any agreement you use is reviewed and approved by a local attorney since laws vary by state. Without a building use agreement, your legal position against a plaintiff is weaker.
2. Correct known defects. Another key factor in limiting liability is keeping your facilities in safe operating condition. If someone falls down the stairs because your handrail is loose, the blame is likely to fall squarely on the church.
To reduce the likelihood of trips and falls, you’ll want to: remove extension cords from walkways; mark changes in elevation, such as steps or ramps; install handrails on stairways with three steps or more; repair uneven or broken steps; replace worn or torn carpeting; use non-slip floor treatments; avoid throw rugs at the base or top of stairs; illuminate parking lots; repair potholes; and clear snow and ice from sidewalks and parking lots.
3. Secure church property. Lock the doors of interior offices, classrooms and supply rooms when not in use. Restrict access to unused parts of the building. Ask a church representative to open the church building for guests and secure it when he leaves. Once you give out a key or security code, you can’t control its use—or replication. Also, keep an inventory of your property. This will help you tell quickly if something is missing, establish proper insurance protection and promote a faster recovery after a theft.
Once you’ve developed a building use agreement, corrected known defects and decided how to secure church property while others are using the building, it’s time to extend a warm welcome to those groups you desire to host. For groups already using the building, explain that you’re now requiring building use agreements to better define which organization would be responsible in case of injury or accident. Most groups should have no problem accepting responsibility for any loss arising from their activities. In fact, they may have assumed that responsibility was theirs from the beginning.
Richard Phillips is a senior underwriting manager for Brotherhood Mutual. For free resources, visit brotherhoodmutual.com.
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