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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Safe Church Policy

Ring member Purple asks a question that likely has relevance for many of us - how does a smaller church implement a Safe Church Policy? Read on:

Our church and denomination is in the very beginning of living into a new constitution (In case you are interested...PCUSA).  Small churches have different structural needs than large churches.  Rural churches have different structural needs than large city churches.  It is flexible and a great tool...if churches will be willing to think differently.

Every church is required to have a Manual of Operations which can be as flexible or as rigid as the church desires.  (note:  I am on the flexible scale).  Part of that Manual of Operations is a Safe Church Policy.  Currently our church has "nada" in this regard.  This church has an active membership of 67 (and the average age is that as well).  Out of the active membership of 67, we have about 35-40 able-bodied people. No youth program or activities.  One child (4th grade) in Sunday School.  We have two teachers who alternate teaching on Sunday morning (one is the child's grandmother).  Many safe church policies mandate that two adults be at every youth activity and that every person helping with any youth activity have a background check.  

- How does this work in a small rural church?
- What creative ways might we write a Safe Church Policy which will provide safety as well as be flexible enough for this church?
- Would you be willing to share your Safe Church Policy with me/us?

Safe Church Policy is not only for the Sunday School, but for the entire church as well. I am fortunate to have two windows in my office. One looks outside to the main street and the other is open to the entryway.  I keep both blinds open when I am in the office, even if I am talking with someone.  If I move that conversation to the library for privacy I keep the door ajar. I maintain confidentiality in all regards (unless required by law to report). As a single pastor, I am always aware of situations which could be misconstrued in visiting as well as pastoral care.  

Yes, I know my presbytery should be on the forefront with information to guide us, but it is an unhealthy presbytery in so many ways and the possibility of that occurring is slim to none. Thanks for your wisdom and grace.

Muthah+ shares her wisdom:
I was in small parish ministry much of my career and I always found it difficult to follow the "rules" of denominational programs that work better for larger congregations.  When ECUSA (now TEC) started their safe church training I was really disgusted with all the falderal that was demanded.  We didn't call it 'safe church' then, we knew that we were mainly responding to the church insurance company's need to cover its assets.

But over the 20 years since those beginning 'sensitivity trainings' we as church have become much more aware and much more concerned for the welfare of our kids and I am thankful for that. Even your senior citizens (I am 67) need this information for the sake of your congregation and for the sake of your community.  I would suggest you ask your teachers to attend any conferences available in your area in order to report back to your congregation at an adult education event.  There will  come a time when you will need it. 

We had a situation in which one of our children was being molested by an older boy at public school.  It was the support that our little congregation gave him so that he could go through the reporting and and testimony that made it possible for him and his family to stand up to the bullying and side-taking that happened in our community.  It drew us closer together and more committed to the safety of our grand children.

It was also as a result of that training that a couple older members shared histories of abuse with me and for the first time in their lives were able to begin some healing.  We older folks have kept silence about a multitude of things because they 'weren't proper in church.'  This is a topic that can no longer be ignored if a congregation is to be healthy.  I heartily recommend that you send your most compassionate souls to this training, you will be surprised by the residual pay-off.  I can guarantee you that members of your congregation have some familiarity with sexual misconduct and those who oppose this training most vociferously are the ones who need it the most. (If your judicatory does not provide such programs, look for another denomination that will accommodate you and your members. ECUSA has a good program now and the UMC does too.)  And I can also guarantee that when young parents in your community hear of your concern for children, they will find it a place where they can worship as a family.

I would suggest a fairly low-key policy such as a commitment to an adult education event (adult forum or speaker) once a year on the topic and each year a member of the congregation is sent for the denominational safe church training.  Your congregation needs to know what is incumbent upon the pastor in the way of reporting and that they are all responsible for keeping people safe in the church.  

Dorcas responds:
Here are a few of the things we did at my rural church of a similar size.  We did have a group of children that ranged from 1 to about 20, depending on the season and other factors.  If the group was on the larger side, we were pretty strict about having more than one adult present.  But if there were 1-3 kids, and limited adult helpers, we required that children be in classrooms or spaces that were visible—open doors, etc.  Sometimes having an open door could be a problem (noise)and our children’s church area was somewhat isolated, but we installed glass panels on all the classroom doors so that even if the door was close, or even when there were two (or more) adults they were not invisible to someone who might pass by.  At least once each week someone did stop by and peek in, and the leaders knew this would be the case. 

And Sharon writes:
Definitely -- be flexible and be reasonable!  You also want to come up with a policy that is not just a "cover-your-you-know-what" document but an approach that actually will create safe spaces and practices in your church.  Some churches adopt a detailed Safe Church Policy all at once.  I have opted to address one thing at a time with the governing board as we build a comprehensive policy.  I started with the policy that two non-related adults be with any group of children or youth.  The flexibility might come with having two small classes in close enough proximity that two leaders are effectively available for each other and able to observe each other.

The next policy for me would be a disclosure form that each adult teacher/leader fills out.  This has personal information (contact info and job info), background info (previous churches and roles), references, and answers to questions like "Have you ever been accused or convicted of (a felony, drug possession, child abuse)?" Ideally, the members of the governing board will have input into what is to be on the form, and they will each fill out this form at the same time they ratify its use.

Other things that could follow these are things like a plan for disaster or emergency and the criminal background check.  This incremental approach worked especially well in a small-ish rural church.  One small church around here includes a "Safe Elder" or "Safe Senior" component to their policy which requires at least two people to visit homebound parishioners.  

I hope this gives you some ideas about how to make the policy-making process more manageable and more reasonable.

Wow! Thank you, matriarchs, for sharing from your wisdom and experience! What about the rest of you? What would you add? If anyone has a Safe Church Policy that they want to send directly to Purple, let us know and we will facilitate that sharing.

As always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. Neither of my current congregations has a policy. However, when I was DCE at my home congregation I attending a training hosted by Zoar Lutheran (ELCA)in Perrysburg Ohio. They had recently implemented a good policy and had a very nice packet for us to take with us. I could send you a copy of mine, or you could contact Zoar directly.

  2. Here's the United Methodist "Safe Sanctuaries" page:

    (Pardon the untypable URL; the whole UMC site is like that...)

  3. I am a former lawyer and retired teaching elder (to use the new terminology). The first congregation I served was a small rural congregation. It is important in any setting to make sure that you have "rules" in place not just to protect children but to protect the adults as well. When I moved to the last church I served, I insisted that a window be put in one of the doors into my office mostly for my protection.

    We think we know our parishioners, but anyone, including elderly parishioners can molest and be molested.

    You might see if a larger congregation is having a training program for safe sanctuaries and have some parishioners attend. Perhaps there are other small congregations that you can meet with and explore together what makes sense in your situation.

    In the first congregation I served a young male member was accused of molesting a young boy. This is in a community where everyone knew everyone else and no one imagined that this young man would ever do anything like that (and I'm not sure he did).

  4. It is a way of creating and supporting a safe space for members of your church who may have gone through abuse and never had the courage to tell anyone. Without fear-mongering, it is also a way to be proactive.

    If it seems silly, share with your parishioners that you want this to be in place for community meetings and events too. And if your presbytery or church hierarchy have any resources you can adapt (I hope they would) then it will be easier. I think you might be surprised at the abuse that goes unreported, even in what seems to be a "safe" rural area.



  5. We're a small rural congregation (12 members! although our attendance is higher than that, and we have 14 active youth), and we are generally at greater danger from bears or snowslides than we are from people. That's a good thing, because the quickest response time from any law enforcement would be about 45 minutes — we are pretty much on our own if something goes wrong. So, yay to flexibility!

    Our "Safe Church" policy is fairly simple. No one can be alone with youth; two people approved by the Session must be present at all times. If anyone (usually me) is alone in the church, the doors must be locked. For counseling sessions or food-bank distributions, someone else must be called to come in. When the offering is being counted, at least two other adults (besides the counter) must be in the building. (It's a small building, so we're always within hearing and usually within sight of one another.)

    We have publicized those rules very well, which means we can invoke them liberally. I have said to people who frightened me, "I'm sorry, but I can't take you over to the food bank because we have a firm rule requiring two members to participate in each distribution." That's a little softer than, "There's no way in the world I'm going over there alone with you."

    Unspoken is the rule that when a troublesome individual is there (which happens fairly frequently here in the wild wild west), at least one man will remain as well. We have a code phrase for that: "XXX, I have something I'd like to talk to you about after everyone else leaves."

    The flexibility comes into play in that we don't specify individuals or roles so much as just the requirement of always staying in two's.

    And because I'm often at the manse alone (it's a "second home" for us because I'm a tentmaker, and my husband is a health-care provider who often works weekends), I have developed a speed-dial list of trustworthy people nearby (neighbors as well as church folk) and a different code phrase: "Oh, XXX; I'm glad I caught you; I can't come for dinner tonight after all." (This is an excellent phrase to catch people's attention because I NEVER turn down dinner.)

    We have other policies relating to children. We gather a lot of info from parents, we give a lot of info to parents, and we frequently remind kids what to do if they're uncomfortable or afraid.

  6. We just updated our diocesan policies a year ago. Prior to my life as a priest I worked in mediation and counseling for people who were abused by clergy. Oddly enough that work led me to seek ordination (long story). I think it is very important to have a policy that is carefully written and also flexible. It is best to have two persons when working with children, but in small rural churches, when someone calls in sick or it is impossible to have two persons, we have roving ushers (or other designated adult) who check in on Sunday school classes. It has been difficult for many of our folks to attend the in person trainings, so I created a website a few months ago that provides training for Child Abuse Prevention and Sexual Exploitation prevention. I am working on a Harassment course now.

    If anyone would like to contact me about specific policies (or check out our online training) I would be happy to read them over and give input.

  7. Greetings, I am DCE in a medium congregation and the church i work for has just recently begun implementing A Safe Policy. I am open to sharing my congregation's document. My suggestions on how to go about creating a document is to contact other churches in the area if they have 1 they can share. Own the book Safe Sanctuaries as well as the PC (USA) version (downloadable for free) We Won't Let it Happen Here. We created a 4 person committee that drafted the document taking from other churches, presbyteries and synod's examples of 'what we needed.' This took about 2-3 months, with Session oversight.
    After session approval, a general letter was written to the congregation and specific letters to any and all volunteers for background checks. For a church who's 'been doing it forever,' the most concern was over what would happen to the information once gathered.

    We are just begining the background checks with Protect My Ministry .com (a business approved by our presbytery to conduct the background checks).

    I hope this helps, please contact me if you would like samples, etc


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