“That can never happen here.”

I had a church member tell me that years ago when I helped establish a safety policy for the church I served as a youth pastor. 

The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church should stand as a dire warning to evangelicals – yes, it can (and has) happen here. Fortunately, because of our ecclesiology, we will never see the systemic cover-up seen at the highest levels of the Catholic Church, but we can not be so naive to think that the evangelical church is immune to such scandal.

It is not.

Sin resides in the Church because people make up the Church. Predators look for easy access to children and youth, and unfortunately, churches have provided opportunities in the past.

I’ve learned a thing or two over twenty years of youth ministry experience about how churches can safeguard the children and youth that God has brought under their care.

A sound safety strategy is comprised of two elements: screening and supervision.

Screening

It is imperative that churches implement a screening process for staff and volunteers who work with children and youth. 

This screening starts with an application which should include:

  • three personal references and a pastoral reference
  • volunteer and work history (with contact information)
  • their personal testimony
  • an explanation of why they want to work with children and youth
  • written consent to do a background check (sample forms here)

References should be asked questions like:

  • How would you describe the applicant’s faith commitment? 
  • How would you describe their character? 
  • Do they work well with children and youth? Why or why not?
  • (For volunteer or work contacts) What is it like working with the applicant? How well do they take direction? How well do they work with others?
  • What is your relationship to the applicant? 
  • Is this position a good fit for the applicant?
  • Do you have any concerns about the applicant working with children and youth? Why or why not?
  • Do you have any additional information you would like to provide?

It is an absolute must for churches to run background checks on volunteers, but it can’t be the only thing you do. Many sex offenders do not have a record so it is vital that you include the application, reference checks, and then an interview. In the last ministry I served we checked our state’s sex offender registry (a bare minimum), Iowa’s Central Abuse Registry (those who are credibly accused, but not necessarily had criminal charges filed land there), and an FBI background check.

You may be able to work with your local police department or sheriff’s department for assistance with this. If not then several services provide background checks and they differ in pricing and depth. You’ll need to do your research and determine what your church can afford.

It’s then important to conduct an interview.

Here are some questions you should ask:

  • Tell me your story. Being open-ended the applicant’s answer will give you insight into what they find most important to highlight about themselves (and, perhaps more interesting, what they don’t discuss).
  • What are your gifts, talents, and passions? This isn’t a screening question perse, but it is certainly helpful to know how you can best plug this person into your ministry.
  • Why do you want to work with this age group? Motivation and how they articulate it is very important.
  • Why do you want to work in this role? This question also digs into their motivation to serve.
  • Tell me about your walk with Christ. We get an opportunity to hear their testimony and what their personal discipleship looks like.
  • How would you share the Gospel with a child or youth? This gives us an idea of how much they understand about the Gospel. 
  • What does it mean to be “above reproach” in your personal life? This lets us know are they doing to safeguard their character, reputation, and heart.
  • Who holds you accountable? Are you open to accountability? This helps us know if transparency and accountability is a value in their life. The applicant’s answer will also let you know whether they will take direction or not. Also, if they name a person as an accountability partner, but did not list that person as a reference, that would be a red flag to me.

The last item, but probably the most important, is for your church to implement a six-month rule. Requiring volunteers to have been a member for at least six months (or, at the very least be a regular attendee if your church does not emphasize membership) before they can volunteer is the best thing you can do to screen out potential predators. Implementing this rule will eliminate quick and easy access to your kids. Your church could also require small group participation (that way they are integrating into the life of the church and people get to know them) before someone volunteers.

Also, as you go through this process, pray for God to give you discernment. If a potential staff or volunteer does not sit right with you, then don’t approve that person. It’s far easier to screen someone out than deal with potentially harmful consequences of a bad volunteer.

Supervision

Screening is just half the battle. Staff and volunteers also need to be supervised. 

The best way to head off potential problems is to implement a two-adult rule. Adult staff or volunteers should never be alone with a child or youth ever, period. 

When Jesus sent His disciples out to minister, He sent them out in pairs, (Luke 10:1). It provides built-in support and accountability. For our purposes, if an adult is not alone with children or youth there little to no opportunity for abuse to occur. 

Two adults are a bare minimum, your church or ministry should implement a sensible student to adult ratio that is smaller the younger the age-group. 

Be diligent in enforcing this rule. It should be non-negotiable. If two screened volunteers are not available, then the activity does not happen. Concerning relational ministry, develop a team approach when meeting with youth outside of the church or counseling. Gone are the days of lone ranger ministry.

This rule, by the way, should include paid staff. No one should be exempt.

A word about physical touch. We shouldn’t become the touch police but use common sense. Anything beyond fist bumps, high fives, a pat on the back, etc. should in most instances be discouraged. I understand some of my readers may be a hugger… It’s not about you. If a kid needs one, and yes there are times they do, it’s better to either let them initiate or ask their permission before hugging them.

Slow to “hire,” quick to fire. That may sound harsh, but if you have a staff member or volunteer who don’t abide by the ministry guidelines and policies, they are a liability. Warn and correct them, document it, and if the behavior continues then let them go. It is imperative that this process is spelled out during the screening process so if you find yourself in a position that you need to let a volunteer go it won’t be a surprise. It’s hard, it’s awkward, but it is, at times, necessary. 

If the unthinkable happens…

You may find yourself in a position that even after stringent screening and supervision procedures that a volunteer attempts to harm or harms a student. It is not our role to investigate the matter. Your state may not consider church staff mandatory reporters, but you can still report alleged abuse or neglect. 

Do it, do it quickly, remove the volunteer from service and notify the family.  Notify your supervisor and board. Be transparent about your policies (your church should have a plan on how to handle instances like these).

The volunteer has legal due process rights, but until an investigation clears the volunteer they, under no circumstances, be involved in your church’s children’s or youth ministries. 

Any congregation facing this situation must tackle the situation head-on and not allow any sense that the incident is being swept under the rug.  Had the Catholic Church implemented this policy they would have saved themselves a lot of grief later on.

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