Harassment Training for Church Staffs

Churches should be the safest place on earth.  Churches, however, are full of imperfect people; and where there are imperfect people, things are often not as they should be.   The result is that churches have to be extra diligent, and work hard, to be safe.  One, often overlooked, area that churches need to focus on is bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

Recently, I conducted a training with our church staff.  Here is what we covered:

Why do this training? 

We want to provide the safest place for people to work and worship.  This includes an environment that is free of all kinds of harassment. This training is designed to define and give examples of harassment, outline what to do if you experience harassment while at Calvary, and to explain the consequences of engaging harassing behavior while an employee of the church.

Please keep in mind, as an employee of the church, you can be accused of sexual harassment from other employees, parishioners and even from people you interact within the community.

What is Calvary’s official policy on harassment?

The Church is committed to providing a work environment that is free of discrimination, harassment or hostile work situations.  In keeping with this commitment, the Church maintains a strict policy prohibiting unlawful harassment, including sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment involves not only unwelcome touching and demands for sexual favors, but also any unwelcome sexual oriented behavior or comments that create a hostile or offensive work environment.  It is important for every employee to understand that jokes, stories, cartoons, nicknames, and comments about appearance may be considered offensive to others.  In no way should the above listed examples be considered all-inclusive, but they are intended to provide guidance as to what may constitute a form of harassment.

Sexual harassment of employees by supervisors, coworkers, or others who visit the Church (i.e. vendors) is prohibited.  Information providing further details in regard to sexual harassment is posted on a bulletin board in the Church staff kitchen.

If an employee believes he or she is being, or has been harassed or discriminated against in any way, or has observed harassment in any way, they must report the facts of the incident or incidents to the Executive and/or Senior Pastor immediately, without fear of reprisal.  In determining whether the alleged conduct constitutes unlawful harassment, the totality of the circumstances, such as the nature of the conduct and the context in which the alleged incident occurred, will be investigated and documented in writing.  Every complaint will be taken seriously, investigated promptly and held highly confidential. The Church will take affirmative steps to ensure that such behavior is not allowed or tolerated. Offenders may be disciplined up to and including termination and the loss of any accrued benefits.

What constitutes harassment?

Harassment, legally defined, is unwelcome verbal or physical behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender/gender identity, nationality, age (40 or older), physical or mental disability or genetic information.

When does harassment become unlawful?

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision, such as the victim being fired or demoted.

How are churches different when it comes to discrimination? 

“Religious organizations” and “religious educational institutions” are exempt from certain religious discrimination provisions, and a “ministerial exception” bars Title VII claims by employees who serve in clergy roles.

Religious Organization Exception: Under Title VII, religious organizations are permitted to give employment preference to members of their own religion. The exception does not allow religious organizations otherwise to discriminate in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. Thus, a religious organization is not permitted to engage in racially discriminatory hiring by asserting that a tenet of its religious beliefs is not associating with people of other races.

Ministerial Exception: Courts have held that clergy members generally cannot bring claims under the federal employment discrimination laws, including Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. This “ministerial exception” comes not from the text of the statutes, but from the First Amendment principle that governmental regulation of church administration, including the appointment of clergy, impedes the free exercise of religion and constitutes impermissible government entanglement with church authority. The exception applies only to employees who perform essentially religious functions, namely those whose primary duties consist of engaging in church governance, supervising a religious order, or conducting religious ritual, worship, or instruction. Some courts have made an exception for harassment claims where they concluded that analysis of the case would not implicate these constitutional constraints.

What does non-sexual harassment look like?

Harassing conduct may include, but is not limited to:

  • Spreading malicious rumors, gossip, or innuendo.
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially.
  • Intimidating a person.
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work.
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse.
  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause.
  • Constantly changing work guidelines.
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail.
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information.
  • Making jokes that are ‘obviously offensive’ by spoken word or e-mail.
  • Intruding on a person’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking.
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavorable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure).
  • Underwork – creating a feeling of uselessness.
  • Yelling or using profanity.
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly.
  • Belittling a person’s opinions.
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment.
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion.
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment.
  • Using racist slang, phrases, or nicknames.
  • Making remarks about an individual’s skin color or other ethnic traits.
  • Displaying racist drawings, or posters that might be offensive to a particular group.
  • Making offensive gestures.
  • Making offensive reference to an individual’s mental or physical disability.
  • Sharing inappropriate images, videos, e-mails, letters, or notes in an offensive nature.
  • Offensively talking about negative racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes.
  • Making derogatory age-related comments.
  • Wearing clothing that could be offensive to a particular ethnic group.

Some states have broad definitions of what constitutes harassment. For instance, a court in Florida determined that “fat jokes” made about an obese employee violated the American Disabilities Act. A New Jersey court ruled that a person could bring a claim for disability harassment based upon two remarks made about his diabetic condition.

What does sexual harassment look like?

Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to:

  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography, with co-workers.
  • Sending suggestive letters, notes, or e-mails.
  • Displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace.
  • Telling lewd jokes, or sharing sexual anecdotes.
  • Making inappropriate sexual gestures.
  • Staring in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner, or whistling.
  • Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts.
  • Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person.
  • Asking sexual questions, such as questions about someone’s sexual history.
  • Making offensive comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

What should I do if I experience harassment?

  • As a first step, assuming it was a minor incident, generally, we encourage you to talk with the person first, before filing a formal complaint. You can do this yourself directly, or feel free to ask a trusted coworker to be present with you.
  • If the incident was not minor, was repeated, or you simply do not feel comfortable approaching the person, we encourage you to report the harassment immediately.  The Executive Pastor is the primary contact for harassment claims.  If for some reason you do not feel comfortable going the Executive Pastor, or they are unavailable, you can also report your complaint to the Senior Pastor.  In case that both the Executive Pastor and Senior Pastor are both unavailable, or you feel uncomfortable approaching either of them, you can go to any pastor (for example, a woman who feels that she has been sexually harassed may feel more comfortable going to a female pastor) to file your complaint.

What can I expect when I report harassment?

  • You can expect to be taken seriously.
  • You can expect that your complaint will be followed up on as quickly as possible.   This will include sitting down with you to take your statement, which will be written down in writing and kept on file.   It will be helpful if you know the time, dates, witnesses, etc. of the harassment when taking this statement, but even if you don’t have them, again, you will be taken seriously and your complaint will be followed up on.
  • You can expect to be protected.  Harassment is a protected activity (i.e., you cannot be fired or otherwise retaliated against for a good-faith report).
  • You can expect that everything will remain highly confidential.

What are the potential consequences of being found guilty of harassment?

The Church will take affirmative steps to ensure that such behavior is not repeated. Offenders may be disciplined up to and including termination and the loss of any accrued benefits.





Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “Harassment Training for Church Staffs

  1. Jamie, thanks for your article on Harassment Training for Church Staffs.
    Currently I’m looking for an online harassment training for our church staffs.
    Do you have any recommendations? Please advise. Thanks.

  2. I like what you have done! Did you create any sort of online or paper test to assess understanding, or have students sign something afterwards confirming they have taken the training and understand the contents?

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  4. I know sexual harassment training is required for all employees, but is a pastor or church employee exempt from this? I work at a church and school and am trying to get all my training together. Thank you!

    • Well, at my church we require it of everyone including the senior pastor. Technically, churches can decide what kinds of training they offer, but they would be foolish to not require this of every employee.