To make our churches safe from abuse, we must be proactive. Developing policies and procedures ahead of time, training and educating staff and volunteers, as well as partnering with abuse experts will set your church up well to be a safe place for your community. It is up to the pastors and leaders of a church to lead this charge. Here are five essential action steps you can implement to begin protecting your church from predators and caring well for survivors of abuse.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless. (Psa. 10:14)
The five essentials to make your church safe from abuse
“Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you” (Prov. 2:11).
It is imperative that church leaders are aware and understand the scourge of sexual abuse that exists in our country, world, and even inside the Church. Statistics tell us 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys (though many believe this is much higher) are sexually abused before they turn 18. Only a small percentage of these victims ever reveal their abuse. Church leaders must help our churches understand that the mission to prevent sexual abuse and our response to it is a clear and compelling gospel issue. It is not one we can ignore. We must face it head-on and not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear because it may be difficult.
Every church must train their members on how to prevent, identify, and respond to sexual abuse. Sexual abuse awareness training is a foundational component of onboarding new staff and volunteers who will have access to children, youth, and vulnerable adults. This reinforces a culture of zero tolerance. Church leaders must help dispel the idea that abuse can’t happen in our church, must not minimize it as a mistake, or must not think that doing a criminal background check is enough. Each church needs to be committed to an ongoing process of training and continually raising awareness of this issue.
“Therefore, each of you must put away falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Eph. 4:25).
In order to make your church safe from abuse, it is critical that each implement a thorough screening process for anyone that will have access to children, youth, and vulnerable adults. A thorough process ensures that individuals are suitable and compatible with your church’s policies and procedures. Every potential staff member and volunteer should go through the same screening process. Statistics tell us over 90% of children who are abused know their perpetrator as someone who they trust.
Relying only on background checks does not protect those in your ministry. While background checks must be done, churches need to gather more reliable information from several sources on applicants to determine their fitness for service. An in-depth screening process can drastically reduce the risk of abuse and increase safety for those in your church’s care. The six best practices for screening anyone wanting to serve with children, youth, and vulnerable adults are:
- implementing a six-month waiting period,
- a written application,
- requesting and checking references,
- an interview,
- a background check,
- and a social media review.
Below are some helpful resources that can assist you in developing your church’s screening process.
- Sample application
- Sample reference questions
- Sample interview questions
- FCRA Summary of Rights (must be given to anyone having a background check run on them)
- Authorization for Background Check Form
“Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent, who devise ways to trip my feet” (Psa. 140:4).
Jesus calls us to minister to those who are oppressed (Isa. 58:6-7). Silence does not protect the Church or Christ’s name. One of the ways you can protect children, youth, and vulnerable adults is by having solid policies and procedures in place at your church. These protect those you are serving while also protecting those that serve them. Once developed, being intentional about following policies and procedures is imperative for the protection of everyone involved.
If your church does have policies and procedures in place, now is a good time to review them, making sure they are current and being followed by staff and volunteers. Policies and procedures can only protect everyone if followed and adhered to. Policies should be:
- written from a knowledge of how predators push boundaries and what their grooming patterns look like so that violations can be immediately reported and addressed,
- tailored to your church,
- agreed to and trained by the staff and volunteers,
- and reviewed annually by your legal counsel and insurance companies for further input and guidance.
Policies and procedures are the bookends to a solid prevention plan. Proper screening and training coupled with solid policies and procedures that your staff and volunteers adhere to and abide by create a strong hedge of protection around those your church serves and those who serve them.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice” (Prov. 31:8-9).
Every state has laws identifying those required to report child abuse. Even if you believe you are not legally required to report child abuse in your state, you are still encouraged to report suspected or known abuse. In all states and territories, any person is permitted to report child abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults. As followers of Jesus, we are charged with protecting the vulnerable, and reporting known or suspected abuse is part of that mandate. If you know or suspect a child or vulnerable adult has been abused, you should report this to civil authorities. A church should have a proper response plan for when abuse occurs, including:
- informing the insurance company that insures the church,
- removing the alleged abuser from all ministerial duties until the report is resolved,
- informing the church as appropriate,
- ministering to the victim and the alleged abuser,
- and not attempting to investigate the allegations of abuse internally.
Here are some helpful sites for reporting information:
- Reporting laws for each state: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state/
- Reporting abuse to vulnerable adults: https://www.napsa-now.org/help-in-your-area/
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psa. 147:3).
Church leaders are often called to the difficult and sensitive task of shepherding victims through the devastation of abuse. Abuse violates the dignity of our God-given image and disrupts our voice, sense of identity, and sense of trust and safety in relationships. The trauma of abuse can be a barrier to trusting God, trusting Scripture, and connecting to a church community. Our response in supporting survivors of sexual abuse has the opportunity to accurately reflect the mission and character of Jesus Christ. If we fail in this, we can grossly misrepresent our Savior, thus damaging and failing both survivors as well as abusers, and being a detraction to the gospel.
Walking alongside survivors is a long, slow, necessary, and valuable commitment. It takes collaboration with a variety of community resources such as trauma-informed counselors, legal support, and victim advocates. To make your church safe from abuse, church leaders must become informed about the impact of abuse and how to find the necessary supportive resources to come alongside survivors, for the sake of the gospel.
NOTE: This article was adapted from sbcabuseprevention.com, the website created by the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF). This will be the future site of Ministry Check, which “will provide leaders with the ability to search for information about individuals who have been convicted, found liable, or confessed to abuse.” For future updates on the work of the ARITF, follow their website.
The information contained here is general in nature and is not intended to be legal advice. The Southern Baptist Convention encourages each church to consult with legal counsel when implementing local policies and practices.