You’ve read the papers. You’ve seen the reports. We know that abuse is happening in churches. According to the 2019 “Abuse of Faith” investigation by the Houston Chronicle, nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers—pastors, deacons, youth ministers, and missionaries—have been accused of misconduct by more than 700 victims since 1998.
Guidepost’s recent investigation into the problem of handling sexual abuse in the SBC has demonstrated a dire need for reform in abuse prevention training, volunteer screening, and response to allegations. The PCA released recommendations to equip churches handling cases of domestic abuse this week, demonstrating that abuse doesn’t discriminate by polity, theological convictions, or denominations. But what do we do about it? How can we respond when the scope of the problem seems beyond us?
Our understanding of the Bible’s standards for Christian character and its demands for how we care for the vulnerable must lead to changes in the way we view abuse prevention.
Ministry leaders should take time to grieve and lament the abuse that has gone on for years. We must consider how we can better care for those who have been affected by abuse, both survivors and their loved ones. And every organization that serves children and other vulnerable people must develop a plan to prevent abuse and respond properly if an allegation of abuse is reported in their ministry.
That’s where I want to focus in this article. Our theological convictions about the dignity of all people made in God’s image, our understanding of the Bible’s standards for Christian character, and its demands for how we care for the vulnerable must lead to changes in the way we view abuse prevention and child protection.
3 Key Measures for Child Safety
How can your church begin to take steps toward a robust child safety ministry? Consider these three child safety measures.
The best way to take child protection seriously in your church is to start at the top: in your organization’s leadership. As the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention’s general counsel Sally Wagenmaker says, “Child Protection starts with good, godly governance.”
If your leadership isn’t on board with child safety, then staff and volunteers are likely not on the same page about abuse prevention and reporting practices, and abuse will rarely be dealt with appropriately.
If your organization works with children, the governing body should institute a child safety program, and this program should require a robust screening process (including background checks, interviews, and reference checks) as well as training for all staff and children’s and youth ministry volunteers.
Require all volunteers to agree to a code of conduct, with policies of discipline for those who break it, and maintain a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual abuse. This means the church will not allow anyone who has admitted to or is found to have been convicted of child sexual abuse to work with children in any capacity.
Every person who interacts with kids needs training on how to recognize the signs of abuse, grooming behavior, and abusive behavior. They also need training on how to respond to abusive incidents that occur both inside and outside of the organization. In your church’s training program, emphasize a proactive position toward child safety, rather than a reactive one, so you’re not reacting to situations after the damage has already been done.
Instill in staff and workers their responsibility as those on the front lines of child protection. They will pick up on abuse indicators through conversations and interactions with the kids first. Make staff and volunteers aware of mandated reporting laws in your local jurisdiction. You can find out your state’s requirements at Mandated Reporter or in the Mandatory Reporters guide from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Encourage workers to report anything they find suspicious, with assurance that individuals within the organization and the organization as a whole will not punish or discipline workers for reporting in good faith, regardless of whom they report or if the allegation is true or false.
For more resources on training, see Deepak Reju’s book On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church, especially chapters 11 and 12.
Develop a written response plan before an incident of abuse occurs. The first 24 hours after a report is made are often the most crucial, so make all staff and volunteers aware of the plan so they can access it quickly.
Ensure your response plan complies with investigation protocols from law enforcement and child protective services. Be certain to include steps for how to care for the well-being of the alleged victim, and require documentation of all response actions.
A good response plan covers the following topics: how to receive an allegation of abuse from a child; how to report abuse; mandatory reporter laws and reporting protocols, including contact information for jurisdictional agencies; contact information for legal counsel and your insurance carrier; and designated counselors or therapists for victims.
Churches should put a crisis response team in place. This is an important step even for smaller churches and church plants, where the team will primarily be composed of volunteers. A crisis response team is made up of people who are familiar with the response plan and who provide care for the alleged victims and handle logistical needs.
Finally, leaders must be notified in the event of a report so they can develop an internal plan of care for the alleged victim, separate the victim from his or her abuser, and organize a strategy for communicating with the church and responding to potential media inquiries.
Whatever It Takes
Abuse survivor and victim advocate Jenna Quinn writes, “In the same way there is a mental, psychological, and physical impact of abuse, there is also a spiritual impact of abuse. . . . And when the abuse happens within the faith environment the impact of the survivor’s spiritual damage is often heightened.” We must do everything we can to remove stumbling blocks for those affected by abuse.
God calls his people to care for the vulnerable and protect his church from those who would do it harm (Ps. 82:3–4; Isa. 1:17; Acts 20:28–30; 1 Cor. 5:9–13; James 1:27; Jude 4). Maybe this is your first introduction to the problem of abuse, and maybe it seems too big to handle. But there are measures we can put in place both to prevent abuse and to respond properly, and there are plenty of ministries, Christian lawyers, and even insurance agencies who would love to help! The witness of the church is strengthened when we work together and do whatever it takes to protect and care for children.