Prayer is such an integral part of the church community and Jesus declared that himself when he proclaimed that “My house shall be called the house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). But privacy laws and how privacy is viewed has changed much in recent years and this brings into question if these pose a legal liability to the church.
Prayer Lists – Protecting Privacy
Churches often maintain prayer lists that are distributed to members in a variety of ways. Some in church bulletins or newsletters. Some simply make them available on a table in the church lobby. Others publish their prayer lists on the church’s website.
The purpose of such lists are of course to encourage members to pray on behalf of the person’s specified need, but does listing the individual’s name and their medical condition expose the church to legal liability? (Prayer lists are not always limited to medical conditions, but since that’s the preponderance of use, we’ll focus just on that). Noted below are some suggestions on how to best protect the church and it’s prayer ministry.
Even if the purpose of the prayer list is to call the congregation to prayer, these individual listings and their “needs” should not be made without consent. The same applies for prayer boards you may have at the church office. The individual themselves can tell anyone they want but there are some laws that prevent you from telling others for them.
Consent can be obtained in two ways. It can be “express” meaning that the prayer need is not published in any form without that person’s signed consent. While it’s easiest to get verbal consent, you have far greater legal protection if you obtain it in writing. Or it can be an “implied” consent. The implied consent can be obtained by the church publishing occasional notices in church publications advising members that prayer lists are compiled by the church containing the names and medical conditions of those known to be hospitalized or ill, and advising members who do not want their name and medical condition published on a prayer list, to inform the pastor or church office.
Simplicity Is Best
Even if you have a person’s consent, it’s best to keep the information as general as possible. Some prayer needs are very personal and not everyone needs to know the specifics.
Even with consent, express or implied, prayer lists should never be posted on a public website. It’s one thing to ask members of the congregation to pray on your behalf, it’s another for that information to be accessed by the whole world and the legal exposure to the church would increase dramatically if this occurred.