Overseas Risk Management
Overseas Risk Management for Teams discussed by Rick Johnson and Richard Hammar
For nearly 50 years, individuals and teams from the United States have ministered on short-term assignments to assist missionaries overseas. When compared with the thousands of short-term participants who have participated in ministry, the number of medical emergencies and incidents of neglect or misconduct are few.
Assemblies of God World Missions has established guidelines to minimize the risks of injury and possible litigation against a church or AGWM. To clarify specific risk issues, Richard Johnson, director of AGWM Personnel and Member Care, recently spoke with Richard Hammar, legal counsel for the General Council of the Assemblies of God.
Johnson: What are some risks for churches associated with short-term trips?
Hammar: Four come to mind. A typical church insurance policy does not cover overseas ministry, so an uninsured or underinsured church is at great risk.
Negligent supervision or carelessness may also present a problem. To illustrate, when church leaders allow someone with numerous driving violations to operate a vehicle, and the driver causes an accident that results in deaths or injuries, courts may find the church negligent in the selection of that driver. And if the church were guilty of gross negligence, then it would be exposed to punitive damages that are not covered under the typical church insurance policy.
The primary reason churches were taken to court in 2008 involved incidents of sexual misconduct with a minor. This is another example of negligent selection of workers. A church incurs legal risk when it selects youth and children’s workers without exercising reasonable care in confirming their suitability to work with minors.
Churches also incur risk when they fail to adequately prepare volunteers for overseas ministry.
Johnson: How can churches and AGWM manage its risks and prevent lawsuits?
Hammar: AGWM requires a church to purchase medical insurance through AGWM for all short-term volunteers. If church leaders determine that additional insurance is necessary, they can secure that through a local insurance company.
Churches should also choose its team assignments wisely and screen overseas volunteers. The screening process includes providing proof of official background checks with a reputable company such as ChoicePoint, and the receipt of character references. Each church also must provide AGWM with a list of its overseas workers, and all volunteers are required to complete a general informational form including address, age and emergency contacts.
For many years AGWM has required each short-term missions worker to sign an “Assumption of Risk” form. This certifies that the person understands and assumes the risks of overseas ministry. Each volunteer also signs a “Code of Conduct” form that outlines expectations for conduct while overseas.
To minimize the risk of a sexual offense, AGWM enforces a “zero-tolerance” policy. AGWM does not approve any worker with a sexual misconduct conviction for overseas ministry. AG leaders realize that children are especially vulnerable to sexual predators, and these offenses may carry life-long scars. The “zero-tolerance” policy is an effort to protect children and preserve the reputations of our national churches and pastors.
Johnson: Why should churches be concerned about risk management for overseas missions outreaches?
Hammar: In the past 30 years that I’ve served as AG legal counsel, I am aware of only six incidents where MAPS construction workers were seriously injured. But two of the churches involved had inadequate insurance, and the injured people filed lawsuits to cover their medical expenses. Lawsuits are expensive, even when a church ultimately proves that they had taken adequate precautions. Obviously, when someone brings a charge against a church, a jury will view with favor those that take precautions, establish and enforce guidelines, and conduct screenings.
Any ministry includes risk. In 2 Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul talked about the risks he faced: beatings, shipwreck, robbery, hard labor, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst. But these dangers didn’t prevent him from preaching the gospel. As wise servants, we can minimize or manage the risks we face by acquiring proper insurance, screening workers, establishing thorough guidelines, and preparing volunteers for overseas ministry.