In recent years, the #MeToo movement and other high-profile public scandals have increased public awareness of the incidences of sexual abuse and assault in our society. The Church has not been immune to this trend, and some of the worst instances have occurred in faith-based communities where unsuspecting parents and children have been preyed upon by predators who, in some situations, had a prior history of offending.
The series in the Houston Chronicle brought light into some very dark places and revealed widespread abuse in our churches. In many of these stories, the Church failed in two ways: (1) by not protecting against abuse and (2) by not responding well to abuse. The hope is that the Houston Chronicle series has put a microscope on the need and call for churches to respond to and care well for survivors of abuse, as well as look for direction on how to protect individuals in their congregations from those who seek to do harm. We must heed the call in Proverbs 31:8 to “speak up for those who have no voice; seek justice for those on the verge of destruction.”
Focus on getting educated
As churches consider measures to prevent abuse, they must first focus on educating themselves about abuse dynamics and perpetrators. While abuse at the hand of a stranger is within the realm of possibility and should be guarded against, the greater danger is the person that the child knows. Research shows that in 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the perpetrator. Offenders use relationships, positions of authority, trust, and sometimes threats in order to gain access to their victims’ lives in order to harm them. By leveraging their role as a “trusted” authority figure, perpetrators may not even have to use physical force. Rather, they rely on intimidation, threats, and a child’s fear of not being believed in order to keep the victim compliant.
While the Church has no control over the evil intent of the perpetrator, the Church does have control over its ministry areas, how they operate, and who is eligible to serve in those ministries. The Church must do everything in her power to lower the risk of sexual abuse and assault by reviewing ministry operations involving children and youth, screening of employees and volunteers, and mitigating risks associated with opportunity and isolation.
Protecting our children and youth through policies
Law enforcement and military use the term “harden the target,” which means making the target more difficult to reach or impact. Children’s and youth ministries are prime targets for perpetrators, and churches must evaluate ministries in order to make them less attractive and accessible to perpetrators. By (a) creating policies that protect children and youth, (b) screening out potential risk, (c) educating our congregations about abuse, and (d) responding to reports of abuse in ways that are informed and thoughtful, we create ministries that are safer for our members and less appealing to offenders.
As allegations of abuse surface across denominations, churches are seeking to create safer places of worship and regain trust. Whether you are a church with robust policies or you are just beginning to think through what policies your church needs, this series will give insight on how to think about child protection policy, develop your own policy, or revise existing policies to better promote safety and trust in your congregation.
Church leaders spend hours preparing for church events and sermon series; whereas, policy and procedures are seen as necessary mundane things that have to be in place, but careful thought and attention is not given to this process. Thus, churches end up with borrowed, pieced-together policy in order to check off a box. Policy is, ideally, not something that is created and sits on a shelf. Policy is your guide and what you live by; not what you aspire to, but what you actually do. It is who you are.
Churches should use great care in formulating policy because it can be a double-edged sword. Because churches often see policy as the avenue to protect their organizations from liability exposure, there is a great temptation to simply “cut and paste” found policies without considering whether they are the best fit for the individual church. Other churches will often avoid detailed policies because the policy could be used against them to establish a standard of care in legal proceedings. However, good policy in the area of child protection is meant to protect the individuals in your church, not just the church as a whole. In protecting individuals, you are protecting the entire church.
The motivation for good policies
As God’s people, we should prioritize protecting the vulnerable over risk management. In Matthew 18:1-6, Jesus gives value and high priority to children. Churches must follow his example and value people over the organization. Liability exposure should not be our motivation in creating and maintaining good child protection policies. We must change this mindset and understand that policy is a way to love and care for people well by keeping them safe from harm.
Making and following good policy is God-honoring and a way to steward the trust that our congregation and the community puts in us to be watchful and protective of those who may not be able to protect themselves. Formulating good policies, requiring compliance with these policies, addressing violations of policy, and responding well to disclosures of abuse are all ways that you protect and shepherd your congregation well.
Forming a team
No matter where you are in the process, it helps to start with some sort of committee that oversees the policy process. This committee should be made up of individuals who work with children and youth, both inside and outside the church. No matter the size of your church, the following types of people could be instrumental in formulating and reviewing policy: children’s director, youth pastor, a parent, a seasoned volunteer, a social worker, a member of law enforcement, attorney, counselor, medical professional, and school teacher.
Form a team that is adequate to cover multiple areas of expertise and share the workload, but keep it small enough that the group can take meaningful steps toward creating a robust policy of protection. Members of your team should understand abuse dynamics, have a strong desire to protect children and make your church a safe place, and be logical and practical in the way they seek to implement their ideas.
Child protection policies should address the following areas:
- Main objectives to be met by the policy;
- Definition of terms;
- Recruitment and screening of employees and volunteers;
- Code of conduct for employees and volunteers;
- Supervision and interactions with children and youth; and
- Responses to disclosures of abuse and mandated reporting.
While policies don’t check all the boxes to prevent abuse and care for those who have been abused, they are essential to the process. Churches can protect and care for individuals in their churches by taking these initial steps to be educated about abuse, to protect their targets, to be rightly motivated, and to form a team to oversee the policy process.
Visit caringwell.com to learn more about the Caring Well Challenge and help make your church safe for survivors and safe from abuse.
The content of this post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice. Please seek legal counsel from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.