When we hear about child sexual abuse in church settings, it turns the stomach and brings up both anger and fear. We can’t imagine it happening at our church, but burying our heads in the sand isn’t helpful. Churches already manage risks to protect both people and ministry. This is one more risk we can and should manage. Here’s how we’re expanding risk management at my church.
- We started by looking at reality; I shared with fellow staff and other leaders what I saw. We were doing criminal background checks, but there were no church-wide policies. In the last 5-10 years, certain practices have become standard in non-profit organizations, including churches, for screening volunteers who work with vulnerable people such as children. We needed to compare our practices to these standards.
- We built a team to address risk management concerns, beginning with protecting vulnerable people. For the team, we looked for people with a love for the church, experience in church ministry and good solid common sense, plus experience in helpful professions. Our team includes a staff member, a business owner and a lawyer, plus people with experience in law enforcement and insurance.
- The team was charged with drafting policies for Board approval and supporting ministry leaders through initial and ongoing implementation. We began by learning and listening. We all read The Missing Ministry by the GuideOne Center for Risk Management. We explored other resources, found out what our sister churches were doing, and talked to our insurance company. We also talked individually to the leaders of our church ministries to vulnerable people: Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and other ministries to children; our ministry to the developmentally disabled; plus those who visit the frail elderly. We gave them a “heads up” on our team’s existence and goals and asked for their input. Virtually all of them expressed a desire that more protections be put in place.
- We drafted policies, shared them with staff and with the ministry leaders who would be affected, then discussed and incorporated their feedback. Our goal was to adapt recommended standards to our own church, protecting the people our ministries serve, the volunteers who serve in them, and the ministry itself in a way that is sustainably doable in our setting.
After a year, the policies are ready to go before our leaders. Our recommendations were guided by these standards for ministries that serve vulnerable people. We require two adults to be present when serving the vulnerable. We have different levels of volunteer screening, but the majority of volunteers
- must be members or participants for six months before serving
- complete an application, including references
- are interviewed
- undergo a criminal background check, and
- attend a training class on protecting vulnerable people
Our biggest challenges are ahead of us. How will we explain this to the congregation? Can we convince sweet and gentle Grandma Jones that we have absolutely no doubt of her trustworthiness, but that we must treat everyone the same? Who will do all the reference checks and background checks, the interviews and the training, and the record-keeping? Can we do it in a timely manner so people who wish to serve are not unnecessarily delayed? Can we demonstrate the trustworthiness of our screening team with peoples’ confidential information? Ask me about it in six months!