Why do we have a safety policy? We are the church -- can’t we just assume we are safe?
These are just two of the questions persons ask me when I speak about the importance of having a safety policy. In response to these questions and many others, I have spent much time in prayer searching for my own answers and my own understanding.
I first examined my own personal experience in the church, asking: When has the church felt safe for me? When have I felt in danger? I remembered joyous moments and challenging ones too. I remembered times when I felt safe and others when I did not trust a community and so I chose to leave.
Next, I reflected on my ministry experience over the last twenty years. I have mostly lived and worked in a culture where safety policies are expected in ministry. Most pastors, laity, Christian educators, and parents I have worked with expected that we would not only have a safety policy, but that we would do our best to implement that policy faithfully.
And yet, my conversations with seminary students and ministry leaders across the United Methodist connection reveal how some persons have different experiences and cultural expectations. At first, I was admittedly surprised when a seminary student challenged me in class one day asking: “Why do we need to have a safety policy? Why do we have to do all of this work? Our churches are safe.” In the midst of the conversation that followed I realized that while I had always worked toward safety in my own ministry contexts, I never had really wrestled with “why” this work was important to me. As the class continued to discuss the “why,” and as I listened deeply to their struggles and revelations, I realized that this was an important part of the work- we must know why something is important before we are willing to embrace a new idea or try a different approach to ministry. For some of these seminary students, the need for a safety policy was a new concept- they had never considered that the church is not a safe place for some people. Nor had they ever thought about how some persons actually experience abuse in a ministry setting. As the students wrestled with their questions regarding the necessity of a policy and the ministry practices a policy requires, they slowly began to claim their own narratives and assumptions. As one student stated: “I can’t believe that this is necessary. I guess I have always assumed faith communities are safe.”
Conversations such as these call students, ministry leaders, faith communities, and myself to take a deep look at the reality of our current culture and ministry context as we consider our role in caring for God’s children.
No matter our context or ministry experience, each of us has a responsibility to keep God’s children safe. In Mark 19:13-14 Jesus affirms this call with his demand: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.
As United Methodists, we respond to this call with the covenant we make at every baptism: “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God” (Baptismal Covenant I, United Methodist Church Book of Worship).
This is our call and our promise- to do the hard and holy work of keeping all persons safe.
The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions affirms this call and demands that we work together to “assure that policies and procedures are in place to help keep all children and the adults who care for and work with them safe” (¶256, Book of Discipline).
This last year I had the privilege to work alongside the Rio Texas Conference Safety Task Force on a new safety policy for our conference. As part of our work we continued this conversation focusing on why we have a safety policy as we considered how a policy might help ensure the safety of all persons in our care. The team took a deep look at the reality of our current culture and ministry context, researching statistics on abuse and talking to professionals as we sought to understand the work that is before us.
We learned that persons under 18 are abused every 8 seconds in the state of Texas. We discovered that 1 in 10 of adults over 60 are abused. We asked: “How are churches impacted by these statistics?” We discovered that there are an average of 70 allegations a week against religious institutions and 1% of churches have an abuse report filed against them every year. We learned that pedophiles view faith communities as vulnerable and easy places to prey. Our work revealed an answer to the question raised by my student eight years ago- We cannot assume that children, youth, and vulnerable adults are safe. Our research also revealed that many persons no longer trust the church nor do they view our faith communities as safe. We spoke with parents who do not feel comfortable leaving their children in our care when neither a safety policy nor an implementation plan is in place. Even our youth have shared that many of their friends will not come to church because they do not feel safe in our care.
Safety is an important element for human development and faith formation. When persons feel safe, they begin to build a lived experience of trust, courage, hope and love. When they do not feel safe, they learn to approach the world with fear and hesitation. Safety is the foundation for building trust. When we feel safe, we can trust God and those in our faith communities. This is how we encourage and nurture all of God’s children as they “grow in their trust of God.”
As United Methodists, our answer to the why comes from scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
Why do we have a safety policy?
To help us do the hard and holy work of keeping all of God’s children safe.
Questions for reflection:
1. When have you felt safe in a faith community?
2. What factors helped you feel safe?
3. When have you not felt safe in a faith community?
4. What factors caused you to mistrust the community?
5. What steps is your faith community currently taking to keep persons safe?
6. What steps can you take next to continue or improve this work?
Call to action: Share the call to safety with your faith community.
Whether this is through teaching, preaching, modeling, or inviting persons to practice- the first step in creating a safe community is to educate and invite your community to work with you. As ministry leaders, our job is to help guide and direct faith communities as they respond to God’s call to keep God’s children safe. For help, check out the resource- Safety: Moving your church towards a new vision and purpose. This resource will provide tools including scriptures, statistics, reflection questions, and other information to help you preach, teach, and encourage your congregation in the work of keeping all person’s safe.
1. Consider a sermon series, a blog, or an article in your church newsletter- use this opportunity to invite your congregation to consider why we have a safety policy and their response to God’s call to keep all people safe.
2. Register your church/organization with SafeGatherings. Use this online tool to screen, train, and track your volunteers.
3. Talk to your staff and ministry committees:
a. Share your current safety policy. Ask members how they are currently working to keep people safe and then invite them to consider areas where they can continue or improve this work.
b. Invite your staff and ministry leaders to identify ways to encourage the entire congregation as you seek to implement your policy in your context.
4. In all that you do- remember that our work is to encourage persons in this work. For so long, we as the church have asked, ‘What’s easiest?’” It is now time to ask, ‘What’s most trustworthy?’” Help persons see that having and implementing a safety policy is not something we do out of fear. Encourage persons to move past their concerns of scarcity and lack of volunteers. Invite persons to ask God to reveal who God is calling to this work and to bless the ministry with fruitful volunteers. Preach a message of abundance and hope. Share the vision of everyone working together to ensure all God’s children are safe.