Jonathan was sick to his stomach. No pastor ever wants to see a child hurt. Yet his church was facing a lawsuit over sexual abuse that recently occurred in their children’s ministry. He was bogged down with conversations with a lawyer, shepherding the distraught families in his congregation, feeling guiltt over his failed leadership, and trying to hold things together. In his own words, Jonathan said, “It felt like a bomb just went off and I’m cleaning up the mess.”
“Jimmy” was a friendly man who had joined First Baptist Church about a year ago. He was kind, and the members of First Baptist took a quick liking to him. He volunteered to teach a Sunday school class and got to know “Peter,” an 8-year-old boy. Things started innocently. A hug at the end of class. Gifts for Peter. Lots of extra attention. And then it happened. Jimmy took advantage of Peter. He made Peter keep it a secret. Peter cried a lot over the next few days (which was not like him), and eventually his mother got the secret out of him. She contacted the pastor immediately, but the church made excuses. She was so outraged that she sued the church.
When Churches Fail Our Kids
Sadly this is an all-too-familiar story. If you pay any attention to the news, you know that sexual offenders show up in churches. Like predators hurting defenseless prey, they do unspeakably horrible things to our children. Much could be prevented, but many churches do not know how to protect their children and how to respond when child sex abuse happens. It all adds up to being irresponsible with the littlest ones that God has entrusted to our care. Why do churches fail our kids?
- Because churches are so desperate for volunteers, sexual offenders know they can get easy access to kids.
- Because churches are so informal, they don’t bother checking on someone’s past or screening volunteers.
- Because Christians make too many assumptions about sexual abuse, they think things like, It will never happen to us or We know everyone at church and none of our friends would do something like this.
- Because Christians make too many assumptions about sexual offenders. They assume they are not anything like us, when in fact sexual offenders come in all types—white collar or blue collar, single or married, male or female, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.
- Because church members get offended when the children’s ministry director starts implementing protective measures in children’s ministry, like asking members to be screened. Long-standing members think, How dare you ask me? I’ve been here for 20 years. Or others think, We’re a small church. We’re like a family. Why do we need this?
- Because sexual offenders are smart. They know Christians are naive, so they take advantage of their trust. Some will cultivate a double life, appearing like the nicest guy in the world. They do this in order to get easy access to children.
- Because when child sex abuse happens at church, there are often no policies in place for how to handle it. When pastors try to handle this internally without a response plan and without involving authorities, children are victimized yet again—but this time by church authorities.
More reasons can be listed, but these scenarios give you a sense of what could go wrong.
Protecting Our Church Kids
What can be done about this problem? How can pastors and churches be more responsible in protecting our children? Let me suggest 10 best practices. None of these practices by themselves can completely eliminate the possibility of a sexual offender hurting your church kids. But together (if followed) they can reduce the risk and increase the likelihood that our kids will be safe.
1. Create and implement a Child Protection Policy. A Child Protection Policy (CPP) is a set of self-imposed guidelines that describe how a church intends to protect the children under its care. A church with no policy is a recipe for disaster because it creates a culture of false assumptions that sexual offenders prey on, like, “We are a small church so we know everyone.”
2. Enforce a check-in and check-out process. Clearly defined check-in and check-out procedures create a “fence” around the children, allowing them to reside safely in the care of the church until they are returned to their parents.
3. Emphasize membership. A big front door to your church is obvious to sexual offenders. Membership is a self-conscious commitment to the congregation that allows the church to define who is “in” and who is “out.” No membership process (or a minimal process) means people too easily flow in and out of the congregation without any clear definition of who is the church. Think for a moment. Where do you think a sexual offender is going to go—a church with a ten-week membership class plus an interview, or a church where you can join right away without any questions? The lower the membership hurdle, the more likely they will jump over it.
4. Train your volunteers. Training volunteers to do their jobs well is an important part of equipping the church to be responsible stewards of children. Two types of training are important—entry level training (for the new volunteer) and ongoing training (for the veterans). How do you answer the question, “What do our staff and volunteers need to know to do their job faithfully, in a way that keeps children safe?”
5. Screen and verify. Most sexual offenders assume you won’t check up on them, because most churches don’t do any form of background check. One of the most important steps in protecting against predators is implementing screening and verification procedures that will detect when sexual offenders are in your church. Do not assume that because a volunteer is a self-professing Christian that therefore he or she can be trusted with your kids. Asking about their backgrounds and employing professional screening services help verify that there are no skeletons in the closet.
6. Design your building deliberately. Have you ever thought about how you can adjust your building design to guard against sexual offenders infiltrating your church? Building layout, and the structural set-up of your children’s ministry wing, may not be the most obvious strategy in dealing with sexual offenders. It’s probably the last thing you can change in your church. Yet there may be simple adjustments (or larger ones) that you can make to help the children in your church be more secure.
7. Develop a response plan. If a sexual offender arrived in the building, would your staff and volunteers know what to do? If a child were abused in your children’s ministry, do you know how you would treat the offender? Do you know how to care for the family of the victim? Do you understand the regulations for reporting abuse? Do you know what to say to media requests? Response plans give you a set of procedures that guide the church’s response to abuse. A church with a response plan shows that the leadership and staff have proactively thought about these things. If there are no plans in place, it means the pastor is going to figure out what to do when something comes up. Which church would you prefer to bring your kids to—one with a well-planned children’s ministry, or one that takes a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach?
8. Get to know your community. Get to know the resources in your community before the problem occurs. Find good doctors and counselors. Take a local Child Protective Services (CPS) worker out to lunch so that when the time comes, you can make a phone call to someone you know rather than an anonymous call to a hotline.
9. Secure the support of all church leaders. One notably wise lady in our church says, “Preach good sermons and they will come. Run an excellent children’s ministry, and they will stay.” Protecting kids starts at the top—if the church leadership takes this task seriously then the church will see the difference. If children’s ministry desperately needs volunteers, or if the children’s ministry director faces overwhelming resistance to these practices, the leadership may need to be more supportive.
10. Equip parents. For several weeks after the Jerry Sandusky trial, I was regularly answering parents who asked, “How do we speak about sexual abuse to our kids?” Train your parents to take seriously their responsibility to be the primary disciplers of their kids. Teach them to be invested in the lives of their kids, so predators can’t hold secrets with their kids. Encourage parents to not avoid conversations about sex, but to talk openly with their kids about sex so that kids can ask honest questions. Remind parents about the importance of instructing children on decorum, modesty, and respectful boundaries with other kids. Encourage them to talk with their children about what to do if a Sunday school teacher or neighbor or relative tries to cross a forbidden line.
Don’t Live in Fear
We fight to protect our kids because we love them and want to preserve the gospel witness of our churches. As Christians, we don’t want to live in fear, so we trust that the God of grace will equip us to walk in his wisdom and strength.