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Safe church policies

Pastoral advice on getting started

by Ken Sehested

      I’m embarrassed to admit muffling a groan when I first heard “safe church policy” mentioned in conversation among our members. Three thoughts came rushing up in complaint.

      First, I remembered the news, from years ago, of a daycare center announcing it was instituting a “no-touching” policy guiding staff behavior with children. No hugs. No encouraging hand-on-the-shoulder. No child-on-lap comforting of distress. I thought then, and still think: that’s nuts.

      Also, I had recently spent many hours wrangling with two different insurance companies, trying to get a very basic liability policy, a new requirement by the church whose space we rent. None of the agents with whom I spoke could conceive that we didn’t want a dozen or more types of coverage. ‘Danger” marketing (“Risk management”) is a growth industry.

      Finally—and I still believe this, too—ours is a culture with inordinate security demands. It seeps in to our pores in ways we often fail to recognize. It should be no surprise that we have a “free-range kids” movement (“Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry”) in a country whose military budget is larger than all other nations combined.

      However, it didn’t take long for my resistance to mellow. The quantifiable evidence is astounding: In our country, 1 out of 4 girls, and 1 out of 6 boys, experience some form of sexual abuse before their eighteenth birthday. The vast majority of abusers are not predatory strangers but known and trusted adults. As most prison chaplains know, childhood sexual abuse is a gift that keeps on giving.

      Repentance on our part will require more than sincere motives. It will take specific provisions—red lights, as well as yellows and greens—to which we hold ourselves accountable, even when it’s inconvenient.

     Here are a few things we learned on our way to implementing our own safe-church policy:

     1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Churches have been doing this for a good many years, so you can profit from others’ experience. It won’t be hard to find sample policy statements.

     2. Prudent practices are dependent on scale. We started by simplifying the policy of a church ten times our size. Don’t create a John Deer tractor to plow a backyard garden.

     3. Some lessons need to soak in. Take your time. From initial inquiry to approved policy took us nearly two years.

     4. A policy is only as good as its implementation. If it costs you nothing, it will accomplish as much.

     5. Risk embarrassment. Put sex on the table for discussion. Part of our commitment included a series of “healthy sexuality” conversations with our children, using the Our Whole Lives curriculum. Our parents and church council members went through the “Darkness to Light” training video. This training will be repeated in the future.

     6. There is no fool-proof policy. But the collective outcome of these efforts will create a culture of awareness throughout the congregation. This result is more important that the written policy.

P.S. The above focuses on protecting children from abuse. Needless to say, an adequate policy also includes provisions and procedures to safeguard adults.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Ken Sehested is co-pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, N.C. Published in the February 2010 edition of Connections, newsletter of the Alliance of Baptists.