Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
“Child abuse.” The phrase alone evokes discomfort—and rightly so, for it represents an ugliness that we would rather not face. Yet face it we must, because the scourge of child abuse is real, and nowhere are its effects more devastating than when it occurs in the church. The Hebrew midwives did all they could to shield the children from Pharaoh’s evil intentions, until God led them out of the land of the Nile. So, too, must we take all steps necessary to protect the boys and girls entrusted to our care, as God leads his church—the Body of Christ—out of the land of denial and into the light of truth.
While there is no sure-fire immunization that will guarantee a local congregation is never touched by this deadly scourge, there are some practical, proactive steps we can implement to safeguard children in our churches. Before we get to them, however, let’s address the key question related to this sensitive topic: if child safety is such an important issue to the church, why do so many congregations struggle to develop and implement a viable Child Safety Plan, before a tragic incident occurs? The answer? It doesn’t matter. Whatever the reason—complacency, inertia, denial, ignorance, fear of lawsuits, fear of unwelcome publicity—none justifies the devastation suffered by a single victim of child abuse that could have been prevented had a Child Safety Plan been in place. What, then, shall we do?
- Realize that denial is a child’s worst enemy and an abuser’s best friend.
- Acknowledge that it CAN happen here. Not theoretically in a local church or hypothetically in the local church or in some local church, but right here in my local church. Unless we seriously believe it could happen here, we won’t do what it takes to ensure that it doesn’t happen here.
- Adopt and implement a sound Child Safety Plan.
THE FIVE BASICS OF A CHILD SAFETY PLAN
1. Church Awareness
It starts with the vision of the senior pastor and children’s (or youth) pastor, followed by the members of your Children’s Ministry Leadership Team (CMLT). If you don’t have a team, start one; this job is too big for one person. Your CMLT will be instrumental in helping design a plan, develop a timeline, and fashion a policy. They can share the load of doing research, communicating the need, and providing support. As you communicate the need to the congregation, this team will be invaluable to you. Be prepared with facts, including statistics and successful examples from other churches. Understand and be prepared to clearly articulate how a Child Safety Plan will enhance your church’s effectiveness and help it accomplish its mission. This is crucial when you present your policy and implementation plan to the church board for approval and budget. Don’t forget to meet with your workers and parents to raise awareness and educate. Be sure your CMLT attends in order to help field questions and share the process.
2. Facility Safety Audit
This is a valuable tool when establishing the need for a policy, and evaluating your facility in terms of possible trouble spots where an incident could happen. You will become aware of changes that need to be made to make these hazardous areas less accessible or attractive. Ineffective protection emboldens predators, actually increasing the danger to children, and will enhance the likelihood of children becoming targets of abuse. The audit will also be useful in gauging the effectiveness of your future policy.
3. Policy Design
a. Prevention: This is your primary goal. Many times, having policies and procedures for workers, including (but not limited to) background checks, will thwart a potential perpetrator by restricting or eliminating access and opportunity. Sound policies protect workers as well as children, but communication is the key. Training, accountability, and clear procedures that are followed and evaluated on a regular basis reduce the likelihood of either children or workers being exploited.
b. Reporting: In the event of an incident or accusation, emotions run high, and important procedures are often overlooked. It is extremely beneficial to have a plan and policy in place that will clearly direct the procedure for reporting.
c. Responding: How the church responds to an incident is crucial. The response can either initiate healing or cause further damage. Care and protection of the victim, and prayer and accountability for the perpetrator, are important components to a healthy Christian response.
4. Policy Implementation
(who, what, when, where, and how)
This is just as crucial as the policy itself. A great policy accomplishes nothing, if you are unwilling to fully implement it and can actually be a liability if written and not followed. The policy must be clearly articulated in writing and presented in your training materials. Test your policy before you need it. Use case studies or hypothetical situations. Take your workers through the steps they will need to follow in an actual case. Hopefully, this is all you will ever need to do, but drills prepare people to respond appropriately, before the problem happens.
Evaluate your procedures at least annually.
5. Continuing Education, Monitoring, and Assessment
If your church is healthy and growing, continuing lay training is vital. Evaluate your procedures at least annually. Survey children’s workers, parents, and guests. Check out other churches. Ask a friend or colleague to be a “Secret Shopper” and offer to reciprocate. Give each other report cards. Celebrate what works well and change what doesn’t. Be open to new ideas and learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Be aware of your community happenings and communicate. Don’t assume. Train all new workers and retrain veteran workers. Good training saves lives.
Now it is required that those who have been given trust must prove faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2).
LESLIE M. HART serves as Children’s Ministry Director for the Church of the Nazarene