Does it not seem as though our churches should be places where children can grow closer to God and to their church family without threat of injury or violence?
The expectation that the world has, and that we have of ourselves, is that our churches will be well organized, that reasonable steps will be taken to prevent injury or abuse. Society seems more and more prone to take legal action as a means of settling grievances. This is, unfortunately, no less true in the church. The church I’d like to belong to is safe for our children.
Happily, many of our churches are engaging places with safe activities for our children. This includes weekly worship services, Adventurers, Pathfinders, Vacation Bible School, camping trips, visiting nursing homes, and many more. To facilitate these activities our children must be protected from injury at our facilities, while being transported, or while learning about God in nature.
If we were to conduct a simple survey of our church facility, what risks might we find? Are the carpets free of rips and holes? Are the utility and maintenance rooms secured, or could children access them along with the chemicals, electrical boxes, or tools contained therein? Are hallways and exits free of storage? Do they provide quick and easy egress in case of a fire? Does your church have a kitchen or dining hall with appliances with hot elements, burners, gas, and pots containing hot food items? Is the baptismal tank secured before and after the service until it’s drained? Can children gain access to areas of the church that are unsupervised while the adults are engaged in ministry or fellowship? These and more questions should be considered on a regular basis.
Nor should we neglect the evaluation of transportation methods and activity planning. Careful selection of vehicles and drivers should be done to ensure that no shortcuts are taken in regard to safety. Have vehicles been inspected, and have they been maintained on a regular schedule? Are drivers trustworthy, with safe driving records and showing good judgment? Is there thought given to communication when conducting an activity off-site, or to emergency planning, first aid, or a plan B in the event of an accident?
Organizations are expected to address risks as part of their duty. Evaluate your facilities and procedures on a systematic basis. It’s a good practice to be sure that those entrusted with the care of our children are oriented to the expected procedures and safety requirements on a regular basis.
Once you have identified these safety risks, the next step is taking action to address and correct them. Safety should be a top priority of the church because it illustrates how we care for people, including our precious children, members, and those we wish to reach with the gospel. Some items that need correction may be simple, and can be remedied quickly at no cost. Others may require planning and financial commitment.
In my experience of examining insurance claims that the church experiences, I’ve seen that often we end up paying for these risks one way or another, either up front, by repairing or correcting something proactively; or afterward, when someone is injured. The former tends to be less expensive in the long run, and no amount of money resolves hurt feelings or damage to the church’s reputation.
Some other risks our children face aren’t so easy to recognize or address. Where there are children, there will be those looking to take advantage of them. I’m sometimes asked why churches seem to be places where abuse takes place. Unfortunately, the answer is that churches are where children are. Also, many churches have much yet to do to improve safety awareness and put safety measures in place for their children.
Here are five practical steps to protect children against abuse:
Leaders should set a clear tone on this issue. Make it clear that abuse will not be tolerated; and a clear process will be followed if it should happen. All must understand that abuse happens, how it happens, what the signs of abuse are, and what is the process of reporting suspected abuse.
Regular members must get to know new people before giving them responsibilities with young churchgoers; we must ensure that they understand and support our rules and expectations, and that their judgment and behavior leave no question of their propriety.
Organizers must ensure that no adult is alone with a child. Having at least two adults on the scene improves the likelihood that nothing untoward happens and that expectations of behavior are met. Classrooms should be viewable, with windows in classroom doors to prevent unobserved activities inside.
Those representing the church as volunteers should be screened effectively for criminal offenses relevant to their responsibilities and with thorough reference checking.
For those who find these steps a burden they do not feel responsible to bear, be assured that legal expectations and the wider culture are not the same today. Instead of groaning under these tasks, let’s be the first to find ways to ensure our children’s safety and make our churches the most proactive and effective in caring for these precious lives.
Imagine the damage done by injury or abuse to a young person that is the result of inattention by the church! What is the impression that abused children and their families will carry with them throughout their lives? What message should that send to those of us entrusted with the responsibility of representing God’s kingdom?
We have not forgotten the important role of parents and guardians in caring for the church’s children. While the church certainly has its responsibilities for the programs it runs, parents’ responsibility is not diminished. Many consider the church another home; and there is a comfort there that children can have free rein. But in keeping our churches safe for families, responsibility has to be clearly defined. The relaxed attitude that others are watching the children leaves too much to assumptions. Then, when a child is subsequently injured, the “blame game” is the natural and painful response. Church leaders should gently but clearly remind parents of their responsibilities to supervise their children, and processes should be in place that clearly mark the transfer of responsibility from parent to Sabbath School teacher and back.
The church succeeds in ministry because of volunteers. Those with supervisory roles—Sabbath School teachers, Pathfinder leaders, etc., should be uplifted and supported. Equally, they should appreciate the seriousness of their responsibility in supervision, planning, and care. Their conduct isn’t limited to their role in Sabbath School or Pathfinders. A lawsuit against them may affect the church’s entire organization (local conference) in their area We have to work together, following the policies and expectations of our conferences and congregations.
In many ways we represent something much larger than ourselves. Our actions effect others.
Keeping our children safe is a challenge because of the different legal environments, risks, and cultures. The principle we can all adopt is to follow the guidelines given us in our areas of responsibility. It’s difficult to defend the church from responsibility if we haven’t followed our own policies or guidelines. The spirit of service in our church community will also include the humility of Christ to submit to what our church has decided and faithfully carry out our task to the very best of our abilities.
The care of our children is a serious responsibility and an honor. Let’s each fulfill this aspect of ministry as one who cares for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40), because according to Christ we are doing this as to Him.
David Fournier is chief client care officer for Adventist Risk Management, Inc., General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.