THE SAME CULTURE OF CONFIDENTIALITY in churches about staff issues may have helped an alleged predator in South Carolina slink from one church to another. This instance underlined how difficult it is for ministries to prevent abuse when there is no criminal history to check and little information sharing between organizations because of fear of liability.
NewSpring Church, part of the Southern Baptist Convention, is one of the fastest-growing churches in the country with 15 campuses across South Carolina and about 23,000 in weekly attendance. It’s now facing lawsuits regarding its vetting of volunteer Jacop Hazlett, who worked in the church’s children’s ministry where he allegedly sexually abused children. South Carolina police say they have now identified 15 alleged victims of Hazlett, although it’s unclear if all of those victims are from NewSpring.
NewSpring said he passed the criminal background check that the church ran on him, as well as an in-person interview. The lawsuits say Cove Church and Elevation Church in North Carolina had turned him out of their children’s ministries out of concern for his behavior. Since 2016, NewSpring has had three other men accused of sexual misconduct with children.
Neither NewSpring, Elevation, nor Cove Church responded to requests for comment on the Hazlett case. Though NDAs don’t appear to have played a role in this case involving a volunteer, NewSpring uses NDAs, and Elevation also uses NDAs for staff and volunteers.
NewSpring’s spokesperson Suzanne Swift initially had told WORLD that the church does not use NDAs, but a former employee sent a copy of a NewSpring NDA he was required to sign as a condition of receiving severance. This particular agreement mentions Swift by name.
Asked about the discrepancy, Swift wrote back saying, “We don’t require staff to sign a specific NDA,” but said employees when they join must sign the employee handbook that includes “the expectation of confidentiality in some situations.”
The former employee said he was presented with the NDA and severance agreement two days before the end of the month, when his family’s health insurance would expire, so he felt he had no choice but to sign. The NewSpring NDA included a non-disparagement clause, that he would not disparage or “complain about” church staff and church members.
In his letter to Cardinal DiNardo about ending confidential settlements, Sullivan concluded: “If you wish the public to once again hold priests in high esteem, then dioceses should start by being 100 percent transparent with the public and 100 percent committed to letting justice prevail.”
Brothers or competitors?
Non-compete clauses, forbidding staff from going to work for other churches or ministries in the area, seem to be a particular sign of ill-health in a Christian organization. Former megachurch Mars Hill Church had required pastors to sign non-compete forms. Harvest Bible Chapel had a non-compete agreement for pastors, forbidding them from being part of another “church ministry” within 50 miles of any Harvest campus.
Willow Creek Community Church said in a statement that it had used NDAs and non-compete agreements “on occasion” in the past, but that such agreements were no longer a practice to use for staff or congregants: “We believe in the local church and want the church, at large, to thrive. We know God calls people to different congregations at different times and we support staff who transition to lead and serve elsewhere.”
WORLD repeatedly contacted the 25 largest megachurches in the country about their use of non-compete clauses; a few agreed to respond. Many reported that they do not use non-competes, but self-reporting on such policies is difficult to assess because churches might have a small non-compete clause slipped into a larger contract or particular severance agreement.
A number said they do not use non-compete forms: NewSpring Church in South Carolina; Southeast Christian Church in Kentucky; Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas; Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
“We believe that our competition is not other churches, but rather the world, the flesh, and the devil,” said Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren. “Our philosophy has always been that we want as many churches as possible in our area, because no single church could possibly appeal to and reach everybody.” —E.B., with reporting from Alyssa Jackson