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In God We Trust: All Others Must be Screened

Steve Alley

Critical safety policies to protect your church and the children in it.

On Palm Sunday in 1998, a 12-year-old girl disappeared from Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was 11 a.m. when someone noticed that the girl was missing, and a few adults searched for her as the worship service began.

Ned Owens, the pastor of the 903-member church, instructed his ushers to go quickly throughout their building to find the child. A few moments later, a child said, "She went with a man to get some flowers."

Indeed, 41-year-old Robin Wayne Martin allegedly entered the second- floor education area, pretended to need help from children, and lured the girl to his van. Throughout the afternoon, church members prayed, passed out fliers, and searched for the child. Seven hours after the abduction, a motorist found her on the side of the road, her hands bound by duct tape. She was alive.

Martin, it turns out, had been a member of Memorial, had grown up in this church, married there, and even raised his two children in it. Martin's mother is still active in the church.

Seven months earlier, Martin had allegedly molested an 8-year-old in another community. That case was pending. In this abduction case, Martin has been charged with 13 counts, including kidnapping, sexual assault, and rape.

Think this could never happen at your church? Think again.

Safety issues -- not only those like this situation -- are the top critical concern for children's ministries today. And for good reason. God is all-trustworthy but people and situations aren't always to be trusted.

Church safety is something for which the wise prepare. To wait until a crisis happens to create safety plans is too late. To believe that "this will never happen to us" is risky.

Churches are sued every year. Lawsuits arise for several reasons including accusations of negligence in the areas of screening and training staff, supervision, event planning, and emergency preparedness. Church Mutual Insurance Company, the leading insurer of churches in America, averages four to five new sexual molestation and misconduct claims each week.

Consider these statistics from James Cobble, the executive director of Christian Ministry Resources in Matthews, North Carolina:

--In the past five years, one out of 25 churches has responded to an allegation of sexual molestation in children's ministry. One percent have actually gone to court.
--Less than half of all churches screen their paid children's ministry workers.
--Less than one-third of all churches screen their children's ministry volunteers.
--The frequency of court cases involving injury to children is directly proportionate to the size of the church. Urban churches are at a higher risk of being accused. Suburban churches with more than 500 members have the highest risk of being sued.
--During the past three years, 52 percent of churches reported having accidents that required medical attention. That percentage increased to 68 percent for churches with a worship attendance between 250 to 1,000 and 84 percent for churches over 1,000.

Churches need to be prepared! This is the legal reason for creating safety policies, but there's a deeper, more significant reason -- to protect the children. Policies are only printed expressions of the value placed on children. If the only reason for safety policies is to protect the corporation, the church has missed Jesus' passion for children. A policy is simply a statement of the church's plan for caring for children and preventing a legal problem.

To better understand the value of safety policies, think in terms of fire blocks in the walls of your home. Construction and fire codes require short blocks of wood to be built into the walls. These fire blocks are designed to slow the progress of the fire as it burns up the wall toward the roof. Fires start low and burn upward. The fire blocks give the firefighters more time to put out the fire.

Most court cases or "fires" start low in children's ministry and can "burn" all the way up the church structure to the "roof"-the senior pastor or church corporate charter. With safety policies in place, the progress of any legal fire is slowed as it burns up the administrative "wall" of the church.

The process of creating policies is not as complex as it may seem. You can take fairly simple steps that require little or no previous experience. These steps are all deeply significant and valuable in protecting children's lives, your children's ministry, and your entire church. The steps in creating safety policies:

1. Clarify the areas of risk.
2. Ask critical questions about each area.
3. Gather information from other churches or child-serving organizations regarding their policies and procedures.
4. Formulate procedures based on the answers to your questions.
5. Ask others to critique the policies and their wording.
6. Consult your senior pastor, church attorney, and church insurance agent for final wording.

Policies are no more than standards of operation with plans for carrying out or supporting those standards. A policy states what you believe and how you plan to fulfill that belief in action. A policy must also include plans of action to take if the policy is broken. Specific action plans must be spelled out to cover all contingency plans and procedures. Think through all the "what if?" variables for each policy or situation. Employee rights and due process must also be considered for each policy.

The following are critical risk areas to consider while creating safety policies. As a starting place, consider the topics for each risk area.

The process of recruiting, screening, and training staff is fast becoming a critical area of safety. I expect that those who serve in children's ministry must be Christians who are growing in their relationship with Jesus. Beyond the spiritual maturity of these people, though, the church is also required to do all it can to run background checks and protect the children from abusive adults. The church may be accused of being negligent if no policies exist for the screening and training of people who work with children.

A church in Corona, California, was faced with a risky situation when one of its volunteers, who hadn't been screened correctly, was discovered as a listed sex offender. Fortunately, no charges were made, and he was removed from service safely. If he had made advances toward a child, the church could've been held liable.

Here's a sample policy statement about screening personnel that'll get you started: "It is the desire of (name of church) that all who serve in the children's ministry be examples of Christlikeness to the children in their words and deeds. All who serve in the children's ministry must be (prerequisite qualities) and pass through the application process that includes (components of the process)."

Areas to consider:

-Basic qualifications-Each church should determine the qualifications for applying to serve in the children's ministry. Some considerations for an applicant might include a minimum-age requirement, spiritual maturity, or church membership status.

-Application process-Do you have an application form? Do people apply via bulletin inserts, in person, over the phone, or through a written form? Does your application process include more than an application form? Are there personal interviews, classes, references, or background checks included in the process?

-Background checks-What sort of background checks will be conducted and by whom? Will you have assistance in this process from church members in law enforcement? Will you check fingerprints, driving records, and criminal records?

-Approval standards-What effects will a person's theological beliefs, character references, background checks, and spiritual strength have on the approval of his or her application to serve in children's ministry? Does the applicant understand these standards? What happens to people who aren't approved? Are they referred to other ministries, called on the phone, or personally thanked? Are their applications kept on file?

-Access to the applicant's data-It's important to identify and limit the people who have access to personnel files. Make a list of these people and agree on the list with your pastor and attorney. The people who have access might include your ministry directors, ministry area coordinators, and church pastors.

-Appeals process-Many churches have been sued for wrongful dismissal. Having an employee or volunteer sign a clearly written appeals-process policy, which involves the pastoral staff or the church board, is vital. Who oversees the appeals process? The church should decide whether the children's pastor, the senior pastor, a board member, or a church staff member is going to oversee the appeals process.

-Staff handbook-Will your policies be compiled into a handbook? If so, the handbook should contain all policies, procedures, standards, and mission statements pertinent to the ministry. Having new recruits sign acceptance statements regarding ministry policies at the start of their service will prevent many damaging disagreements. Decide which policies will be part of this acceptance process, when they'll be signed, and where the agreement originals will be stored.

-Training-Adequate training is crucial. An untrained team member can claim ignorance or blame the church regarding an abuse or negligence issue. Will your training include an orientation, training meetings, video training, on-the-job training, or ministry conferences? As part of the training process, is there an apprenticeship period? How long are the new volunteers in an apprenticeship and with whom? What's the purpose of the apprenticeship? What are the steps before, during, and after the apprenticeship?

Who oversees the training process? The training process is critical enough to warrant a single overseer. Is this person the children's pastor, an area coordinator, or an age-level "master" teacher? What does the training process cover? The training process should include training in ministry policies, the mission of the children's ministry, child characteristics, curriculum use, classroom management, parent relations, discipline, creativity, learning philosophy, child abuse awareness, and emergency procedures.

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