Step Two: Create Urgency

Step Two: Create Urgency

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:6

The church must surround the children in its care with people who are safe and loving. Why, then, do so many churches fail to properly vet those who work with them? The answer is surprisingly simple: trust. Church leaders want to believe that its congregation members are worthy of its trust. 

The sad truth is that abusers know this, and they take advantage of the trust placed in them. The fix for this is also simple: every person who has direct and repetitive contact with children and youth must be screened. Screening includes several steps and may look different in individual congregations. Here are items to consider when developing a screening policy.

Who is screened

A good policy clearly identifies those who will be screened. A church may develop different classes of volunteers and employees to determine the level and type of background check needed. People to include in the policy are those who have regular contact with youth, have a position of authority or supervision, have an opportunity to establish trust, and could have one-on-one contact with youth.

Define the type and level of background check required

Items to consider when determining which background check to use:

  • Number and type of records accessed
  • Geographic location (county, country, international)
  • Length of history to search
  • Quality of databases searched
  • Check of state and national sex-offender websites
  • Check of state child abuse registries

Several companies run background checks. The local Department of Human Services or Child Protection Agency is a good place to give a recommendation. The church’s insurance carrier may have a recommended company, and it may give a discount if run through the insurance company.

In-person interviews

Meet with the potential employee or volunteer and ask open ended questions that encourage discussion. If an area of concern is uncovered, follow up with additional questions. 

Reference checks

References provide additional information about individuals and help verify past experiences. 

Establish criteria that trigger a review and disqualification for participation

Churches may have volunteers with different roles and responsibilities. These may result in different disqualification standards. For example, a helper in a Sunday school classroom may not need to meet the same standards as the teacher, who has more authority over the children. Disqualifiers may include:

  • Past history of sexual victimization of children
  • Conviction for any crime in which children were involved
  • History of violence or sexually exploitative behavior
  • Lying about criminal history
  • Termination from a paid or volunteer position for misconduct with a child

Ongoing vetting

Vetting individuals who work with children is not a one-and-done activity. Policies need to include a provision for ongoing background checks every one or two years. Occasional observation of individuals while they work with children is important. Look for red flags like excessive or unnatural interest in children’s activities or excessive touching. 

Screening background checks may feel unloving to some; and it can feel uncomfortable. However, it is a very loving thing to keep children, a vulnerable population, safe. You can relieve some of the uncomfortable feeling by making the reasons for the policy well-known. Advertise that the church will perform a background check so members can take that into account before they offer to volunteer.

As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.” 

Step Two: Create Urgency

Step Two: Create Urgency

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” Galatians 6:10.

People in the congregation must first understand the statistics and results of child abuse to feel compelled to do something about it.  That is why education is the first Child Safety Committee [insert hyperlink to that article] task to start. Together, the committee decides which information to share with the various audiences in the congregation and the best way to communicate it with each group.  

Potential groups to educate:

  • Leadership groups
  • Women’s and Men’s groups
  • Lutheran elementary school staff
  • Early Childhood staff
  • Sunday / Wednesday school staff
  • Teen group
  • Members at large

Information that could be shared:

  • Child abuse statistics
  • How abuse affects children 
  • What child abuse is
  • Adult survivors of child abuse
  • ACEs
  • Spiritual ramifications

Ways to share:

  • Presentations by committee members
  • Invite outside speaker to talk
  • Bulletin inserts and blurbs
  • Newsletter articles (church and school)

The goal of all church education should not be to scare people; rather, it should create an urgency to address the issue of keeping children safe. It creates a unity among the body of believers and a common purpose in the fight against abuse. It also invites the entire congregation to stand up for the children of the church. 

Abuse education is an ongoing task for the Child Safety Committee. The first year of education will have a heavy emphasis on continued and varied opportunities to learn about child abuse. After the initial training, the committee will be responsible for ensuring that ongoing training opportunities are available throughout the year.

Step One: Form a Child Safety Committee

Step One: Form a Child Safety Committee

The work of ensuring children are safe in religious settings is not something that can fall on one person’s shoulders. Having a full and robust committee of people is important to the church’s success at keeping the children in its care safe. 

The People

Every church has a group of people who seem to volunteer for most tasks. This is not necessarily the group that needs to be on the Child Safety Committee. Instead, look for the skillsets and knowledge that a person brings with them. Some people to consider for this committee are:

  • Members of law enforcement
  • Social workers
  • A faculty member from the Lutheran Elementary School (LES), if the church has one
  • Medical professionals
  • People who work with children in their job
  • A member of the church’s school board

Three qualifications that will be helpful for committee members to have include an understanding of child abuse, the desire to protect children, and a logical and practical mindset.

The Committee

Successful committees start with clear expectations about the work to be completed. Every church will have its own unique situation. Before forming the committee, take time to determine exactly what the committee will do. Setting the parameters is a job for the church council. Items to consider include:

  • Complete a study on the current child safety environment. What are opportunities and threats?
  • Seek input from other church members
  • Develop a child safety policy for the church to adopt
  • Provide education to church members about abuse and need for child safety measures
  • At least annually, review the policy and make changes when needed
  • Work with the LES to create a school policy that aligns with the church policy
  • Coordinate communication between the many stakeholders involved in children’s ministry

Once the key tasks for the committee are developed, create a time commitment plan. Will the committee meet once a month for one hour or quarterly for three hours? Will more involvement be needed at the beginning with time commitments tapering after the first year? Volunteer committee members will want to have an idea of how much time this will take. Be ready to answer that question.

Recruiting Volunteers

Once a church determines the tasks for the committee to accomplish, it can begin recruitment. The number one way to get volunteers is the personal ask. Make a list of members who have the experience needed for the committee and begin to ask them to join.

Some churches may not have members that fill key roles they want filled in order to have a well-rounded and informed committee. Consider asking community members to attend in an advisory role. For example, law enforcement agencies often make officers available for this type of work. Community members are asked to provide the committee with child abuse experience, not inform doctrine decisions.

A child safety committee is the important first step toward ensuring our children stay safe while in the church’s care. Church leadership must take time before forming a committee to thoughtfully decide what the committee will do, and who will best serve in this way.