The church has an important responsibility to protect the children and youth underneath its care. Jesus said in Matthew 18:5-6 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened to his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (ESV). I’m aware this text has a variety of implications. But one that is surely in view (particularly in today’s culture) is the responsibility to protect children from abuse underneath the umbrella of the church ministries and program windows.
I’ve counseled and known far too many people who are broken, marred, angered, and scarred by abuse that they experienced. I’m sure you’ve counseled, comforted, and prayed with them as well. The grave sin of abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual) from a caretaker, family member, or leader is a horrible blight on society. And in turn, the abused are the ones who suffer greatly—spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally.
For example, we should be angry at the abuses far too prevalent in the Catholic Church due to a complete misunderstanding of the idea of celibacy in Scripture. We should also be angry when a youth pastor or child molester finds a home in a careless church. Therefore, we should be vigilant to protect children when they are under our watch at the church. Below are some suggestions and practices we employ at Mud Creek Baptist Church:
- Every worker from nursery through high school ministry has to undergo a background check before serving. This is the least any church should do. Just having to take a background check will discourage many child predators from viewing your church as an easy target. This practice will protect children and also can provide a legal safeguard in lieu of a lawsuit should your church be the location for abuse. [Editor’s note: Lifeway offers a special discounted service to churches needing background checks.]
- Develop a check in and check out policy in your children/youth areas. At the least you should not allow elementary age children to leave their classroom/ministry area without a parent or guardian. Also, in our nursery rooms, we have cameras as one way to attempt to remain above reproach (I realize this may not be feasible for every church, but we also require each nursery room to have 2 adult leaders as a manner of accountability).
- Be above reproach in all your leadership choices, especially regarding off campus trips and relationships with children/students. While this appears to be a no brainer, student leaders/pastors should not be alone with students. We pay for adults to go on camp trips particularly for this reason. More adults create more accountability. Again, these adults should be vetted.
- Create a security protocol for those you may be aware of who have been documented as child molesters/predators. If we are aware of a convicted sex offender in our church, we set up a meeting between them and one of our pastors. (Now, let me offer that I think the best place for anyone recovering from sin is the church. I don’t believe we should keep any sinner out of church unless of course they are undergoing church discipline for rebellious sin.) In that meeting, we inform the individual of our church policies designed to protect children. We ask them to sign a covenant promising to remain only in main areas within the church (such as never going into the nursery or children’s areas). Should they disregard this expectation we ask them to leave the church. Believe it or not, we’ve done this a number of times with individuals who abide by this covenant for a short period of time only to break it. At least one time, the response to breaking the covenant was nonchalant and rebellious (a clue that their motivation was not growth as a church member, but likely more nefarious). We asked them not to return to our campus based on the breaking of the covenant they agreed to.
- Develop a security team. We are a large church (4,000 members) so this may be less necessary in a smaller setting, but a good idea nonetheless. Our security team monitors situations and individuals that could potentially cause problems (using cameras—again a benefit of our size—and walking the grounds). They also act as security in the event of a disruptive parishioner attempting to corner our pastor (which has actually happened publicly on more than one occasion). Our security team is also trained in the event of a medical emergency and has responded recently to falls, heart attack scares, and seizures of attenders in our congregation. By the way, our security team includes off duty police officers and state patrolmen. They assisted us greatly in designing and implementing our policies (protection of children, security, and medical).
- Lastly, build a buffer window of time into your volunteer protocols. For example, someone must be a member of your church 3 months before being allowed to serve in the nursery. As an associate pastor, I realize the difficulty of filling every volunteer role (especially the ones that require significant commitment). But I’ve also witnessed new individuals to our church try to jump right into a volunteer role. I’ve become skeptical of those who want to jump into a ministry right after attending our church. (Let me be clear, not all of these super-quick volunteers have nefarious motivations. I’m not making that case). However, time for you to observe and get to know them as well as time for them to get to know your church and its structures, ministries and programs will benefit everyone. Someone with great motivations for serving will patiently wait through your buffer timeframe. Someone who wants to control how things are run or someone with more evil motivations will just leave and find an easier target.
Be vigilant in knowing who serves in your church and make the protection of your children a priority for your church. This may not lead to astounding church growth, but I guarantee you that creating sound and open security procedures will set at ease parents who visit your church for the first time. Moreover, I can’t imagine how damaging spiritually, emotionally, and practically it would be for your church to be the “place” where abuse takes place.