Currently Facebook has over one billion active users. Twitter has 500 million active users, and YouTube has a billion users. Social media is here to stay. Churches regularly communicate with their congregations and promote events through social media. It offers substantial value to your ministry, letting you do the following:
- Engage your congregation through commonly used platforms
- Create an online sense of community for church members to connect with each other (particularly effective with youth)
- Receive immediate feedback from church members
- Encourage connectivity, accountability, and discussion beyond scheduled church activities
- Create free, timely promotion of church events
However, misuse of this highly public tool can damage a church’s reputation and even put them at risk of litigation. To safely enjoy the benefits, it is in your best interest to develop a social media policy for your church to address the following risks:
Sexually explicit communication with minors.
In a recent Risk Mgmt LIVE episode, Richard Hammar, legal counsel for the Assemblies of God, asks, “Why does a church volunteer or employee have to communicate one-on-one with a child via social media at all? There is no real reason to do it.”
Church risk management professional Jerry Sparks also advises church leaders and volunteers to simply communicate with parents or have a group blog, discouraging one-on-one communication with minors through social media.
Before you post anything on social media, think of potential legal ramifications. The harvesting of past social media communications is now a common way for legal teams to find incriminating statements which can be used against you in a court of law.
Personally identifiable information and photos of minors
Church websites and Facebook pages often share personally identifiable information, which an outsider can use to contact a minor. This exposes children not only to predators, but also to non-custodial biological parents who may try to contact their children against court orders. Protect minors by never posting birth dates, phone numbers, email addresses, or school names. In addition, always seek written permission from people to post their photograph and written permission from parents or guardians to post photos of minors.
Defamation, confidentiality, and invasion of privacy
If an internal dispute occurs, any disparaging comments about individuals posted online by church staff or employees may be considered defamation, putting the church at risk for a lawsuit. Avoid any disclosure of private facts about people or situations unless you have permission. Never post something that might be confidential without checking first. A classic mistake many churches make is posting prayer needs along with people’s names.
It is against the law to utilize articles, photos, music, or other materials without obtaining permission first. It’s not enough to simply give attribution to the author when posting. In order to legally post copyrighted material, whether it’s a sermon from a visiting evangelist or a video of your worship service containing copyrighted music, you must have the proper authorization. This can either be through a license the church holds or directly from the owner of the copyrighted material.
Adverse employment decisions
In many states it is now illegal for an employer to take adverse employment action against an employee for making disparaging or critical remarks against the company or its leaders on his or her own social media account, unless they’re violating a policy they agreed to upon employment. These laws apply to churches and other nonprofits. Avoid liability by including a social media policy in your employee handbook, with stated consequences for violations.
In light of the risks surrounding social media, it’s important to take measures that protect your church. These tips will get you started:
- Document all current and intended use by staff and employees.
- Implement safeguards. These include disclaimers on employees’ personal accounts; permission for the use of photos, videos, and copyrighted material; and protection of confidentiality.
- Train employees on proper and improper use.
- Monitor the church website and social media posts by others.
Because social media is a dynamic issue, it is best to seek legal counsel for any questions or issues that may arise.
For more information about reducing social media risk, call AGFinancial Insurance Solutions at 866.621.1787.