Christian small groups often use church facilities for meetings or gather at the home of the small group leader or host. Regardless of where the meetings take place, ministry leaders and small group leaders/hosts might be the target of a lawsuit if someone were injured during a ministry-sponsored activity.
When conducting small group meetings, it’s important to ask the following questions:
Are there defects or dangers in the home or facility where the group meets that participants should be made aware of (i.e. frayed carpet or loose handrails on stairs)?
Will the small group host communicate rules associated with special risks like swimming pools or trampolines?
Are appropriate safety measures taken in rooms where small children will play (i.e., outlet covers, gates to block stairs, etc.)?
Parents are ultimately responsible for the safety of their children. Are the parents participating in the small group comfortable with childcare arrangements, including the individual(s) who will be supervising?
Is the childcare provided in a designated room that is easily accessible to all parents? Bedrooms and other intimate spaces should be off limits to children, and there should never be more than one person in a bathroom. If a child requires assistance in the bathroom, one of the child’s parents should be asked to help.
Does the small group leader have a copy of the church’s child supervision policy? This can help communicate the church’s commitment to child safety and guide the small group leader in making appropriate childcare arrangements for small group activities.
Are the individuals providing childcare properly screened according to the church’s child supervision policy? All volunteers who will have direct contact with children, youth, or vulnerable adults should be screened(e.g., application, interview, reference checks, and background check).
If food is served, whether it was prepared by a group participant or a restaurant, were reasonable precautions taken to prepare and consume the food in accordance with sound health practices?
Do any small group participants (including children) have food allergies? If so, what are they? Does the small group host know what measures must be taken in the event of an allergic reaction?
Church-Authorized vs. Independent Small Groups
Due to the risks involved, it’s also important for ministry leaders to develop a process to distinguish small groups working under the authority of church leaders from those that are independent of church oversight. Church-authorized small groups would be those that are initiated by individuals who are church employees or other ministry leaders. Independent groups would be those that are simply formed by church members without any formal church acknowledgement, monitoring, or endorsement.
Church-authorized groups. It’s a good idea to have policies/procedures in place that require ministry leaders to regularly monitor them. The policies also should call for monitoring staff members to encourage best practices (as referenced below) within authorized groups.
Independent groups. Ministry leaders might decide to offer training, support, and oversight to the hosts/leaders. If such an offer is accepted, such a group might then be recognized as a church-authorized, ministry-sanctioned group. If, on the other hand, the group refuses such assistance, its leaders should be politely advised that they are not formally sponsored by the church and are "on their own" from a liability perspective.
Liability Coverage for Leaders, Hosts
Who is at fault when an accident happens at church-authorized small group meeting held at a church member’s home? Is it the church that sponsored the small group, the homeowner who hosted the small group, or the small group leader?
Small group leaders and hosts typically have to rely on their personal homeowner’s insurance coverage when faced with small group-related claims, but that can be a daunting proposition.
Brotherhood Mutual provides primary liability coverage to small group leaders and hosts for claims that arise while the leaders or hosts are acting within the scope of their authority on behalf of the church. Primary liability coverage means that Brotherhood Mutual’s small group insurance coverage responds first; therefore, church-authorized small group leaders and hosts may not need to rely on their personal homeowner’s coverage.
Regardless of whether a small group is authorized by its church or not, it would be wise for church leaders, small group leaders and hosts to consider these areas before planning their next small group gathering.