Part 2: How Do Organizations Identify Their Ministers?

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Thanks for this clear introduction to the “Ministerial Exception” idea. I can see how this gives a church or religious institution freedom to exercise its beliefs free from undue government intrusion. I can also see how an organization could get lazy with its use, and lean on it too heavily or inappropriately.


In your last paragraph above you state “Most employment laws involve treating people kindly and reasonably.” Also, treatment of people needs to exceed general statutory standards. If we act this way, we’ll generally avoid discrimination, and not even need to invoke the ministerial exception.

I guess my struggle with the ministerial exception is that it is not broad enough in another way. As a psychologist who has assessed, trained and treated thousands of missionaries over the last almost 40 years, I have seen a lot of potential train wrecks where the information we discovered in the assessments may not have had much to do with the ministerial exception, but it allowed people to make informed decisions about placements. That is because my assessments provided useful information. I think of these these tests as related to the broader scriptural standards of caring for people, in that if you know someone is heading for a fall, you need to bring it to their attention.  

So ministerial exception lets a religious organization define and choose its ministers. Assessing people for jobs means evaluating their characteristics and perhaps making decisions about whether they belong there or whether you avoid trouble by keeping them out. Are these two related? It seems to me that when the ministerial exception lets an organization choose its minister by spiritual characteristics, which could include some diagnostic criteria. We can measure traits that are essential to effective spiritual development, growth and thriving, which are relevant under the ministerial exception, but are also diagnostic. By this I mean psychological traits like good mental health, versus family history of depressions of all kinds, current depression or other significant mental health issues.

Maybe this is my head cold talking today, but it feels like my hands are tied pretty tightly as I help assessment personnel or mission leaders try to ascertain who might be the best fit for their organization and tasks. How do I analyze mental health criteria? Does selection by mental health violate civil rights statutes? How do I apply the ministerial exception? 

You and I have discussed job descriptions a lot, and I guess this interaction of mental health and ministerial criteria goes right back to the need to create a really good position description.

So what am I asking?  Here goes:  What is the best process for identifying behavioral, interpersonal, and spiritual characteristics that will define what a religious organization wants in a minister so that it can legally claim ministerial exception? 


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Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations