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Mars Hill Church’s flagship location in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle
Associated Press/Photo by Scott Cohen
Mars Hill Church’s flagship location in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle

Sign or face the consequences

Religion | Mars Hill and Elevation are among a small minority of churches that require staff and volunteers to sign non-disclosure agreements

Two megachurches facing scrutiny for questionable behavior—Seattle’s Mars Hill Church and Charlotte, N.C.’s Elevation Church—have something besides controversy in common: They both require staff to sign confidentiality agreements.

The Mars Hill document obtained by WORLD (which includes redactions to protect the source) is a “separation and release” agreement, presented to a Mars Hill employee upon a person’s departure from the church. The document covers both the employee and the employee’s spouse, and it threatens legal action if the former staff member or his or her spouse commits “any intentional or unintentional violation” of the agreement. Elevation’s agreement (obtained by The Charlotte Observer) also threatens legal action.

This practice of Mars Hill and Elevation raises the question: Just how common is it for churches to require such an agreement between them and their staff and volunteers? Apparently the use of confidentiality agreements is not completely unprecedented. A Google search turns up at least a half-dozen churches with confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) posted online. But out of the more than 200,000 churches in the United States, it is nonetheless fair to say only a very small minority—likely less than 1 percent—require agreements with their staff and volunteers.

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But according to Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, such agreements are becoming increasingly more common for churches. “The basis generally used for such agreements is that the Scriptures forbid the spreading of gossip, slander, and the betraying of confidences,” he said. “Does every small church in America have these agreements? No, although probably more of them should. The larger the organization, the greater tendency there is to find these agreements.”

Enforceable or not, these non-disclosure agreements, with their implied threat of legal action, have had a chilling effect on the employees and volunteers who have signed them. WORLD contacted at least a dozen elders and former employees of Mars Hill Church who refused to talk on the record because they feared retribution from the church.

Dave Kraft, a former elder and pastor at Mars Hill, never signed the church’s non-disclosure agreement. He left his eldership and membership with the church in September 2013 for, he said, “a variety of reasons, among them the NDA.” He called the non-disclosure agreement a “gag order,” adding, “It’s a terrible thing when someone has to fear being sued by his church.”

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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