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Should Churches Have NDAs?

In 1978, a computer programmer took a new job with a competitor for his previous employer. His old boss cried foul, saying such a move amounted to supplying the competition with “trade secrets,” and that the former employee was legally barred from putting his relevant experience to use anywhere that might give the competition a leg up. The courts said no, so the fledgling tech industry adapted by creating non-disclosure agreements — documents that muzzled former employees talking about broad areas of their former employment. 

Today, non-disclosure agreements are everywhere, and employers have found use for them far beyond the bounds of protecting trade secrets. NDAs are now a common part of leaving a job and an even more common part of any legal dispute with an employer, casting an enormous shroud of confidentiality over the details of what went down. And while it’s not exactly clear when NDAs first made their way into churches, the first time it became a matter of public knowledge involves the issue for which NDAs have become most infamous: sexual abuse. 

In the 1980s, a Catholic diocese in Louisiana offered a family a large settlement after three brothers revealed they had been abused by a local priest. The settlement came with a condition: the confidentiality clause. It was a condition the family lived to regret, after they learned that their experience with the priest was not unique, but they were legally bound from alerting the community to a broader pattern. 

Since then, countless other victims of abuse within the Church have found themselves trapped in the same dilemma. Men and women find themselves bound by expansive and open-ended NDAs, leaving them unable to discuss what happened with anyone. Sometimes, they watch their former abusers move on to other jobs and even other scandals, but are unable to say anything about it. They can’t alert new churches that they’re hiring an abuser. They can’t connect with other victims. Their clauses are often so vague that they’re not sure if they can say anything at all. 

This can be especially troubling for abuse victims in counseling, who are often told about how freeing and therapeutic it can be to share their stories. Studies show that being able to talk about what happened can be healing for survivors of abusive situations, but that path to healing is blocked to anyone who’s signed an NDA. So not only do NDAs keep victims from speaking out, they also keep them from finding their own freedom from past trauma. In all this, the only ones who benefit from an NDA are the institution, which gets a veil of secrecy, and the abuser, who knows public knowledge of what happened can be contained.

Given all this, it is hard to make the case that churches should use NDAs. It’s easy to see the appeal, but hard to see the biblical justification. Corporations may say they want to use them to protect trade secrets and business strategies from competition, but these aren’t concerns for churches. The church isn’t a corporation. It’s not in the business of shielding its CEOs. Churches should be different. Churches should be a place of radical freedom for the abused, and radical justice for the abuser. NDAs may offer a little extra legal protection for churches, but churches should be willing to forego those protections for the good of their congregations. Churches should risk radical transparency, and hold themselves to the highest possible standard with no safety net, for the good of the community. 

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It is popular in churches to talk about the benefits of “authentic community” and to be sure, the Body of Christ should exemplify just that sort of familial love with each other. But that type of community can’t truly exist if the threat of legal red tape is hanging over its most vulnerable, and those most in need of the freedom to tell their stories. 

Leadership can argue that NDAs may have some limited use, and sometimes this language can even come cloaked in the language of protecting survivors. And while it may be possible to imagine an extraordinary situation in which an NDA would be beneficial, that argument is held with a lot of skepticism by #NDAfree, a website devoted to raising awareness about the dark side of confidentiality clauses and non-disclosure agreements among Christian organizations. They also work with survivors to provide them with resources that can help liberate them from their NDAs. 

Their movement is gaining steam, as denominations like the Christian Reformed Church, the Church of England and Southern Baptists are all pledging to re-think their use of NDAs. That’s a good start and, hopefully, the beginning of a broader, trans-denominational reflection on why churches started using NDAs to begin with and what, if anything, has been gained from it. Christians know the Gospel teaches that everything that happens in darkness will be brought to light. Why wait? 

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