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Predator-Proof Your Flock

Jim Wideman

Protect your children and your church from wolves in sheep's clothing

It's the universal cry of the children's ministry leader: "We need volunteers, we need volunteers, we need volunteers, we need volunteers, WE NEED VOLUNTEERS!"

No matter the ministry size, it seems churches are desperate for volunteers to effectively minister to kids. And because we're so desperate, we can get careless, sometimes even sloppy, and we leave ourselves open for the wrong person to infiltrate the ranks of the faithful.

"Oh, this would never happen at my church," I've heard many leaders say. But the reality is that it happens all the time.

An Eye-Opening Experience

Let me tell you my story. It was a January in the mid-1980s, and I was attending a Children's Pastor's Conference in Denver, Colorado. One of the featured speakers was an FBI investigator who'd worked the McMartin Daycare case, which was in every headline in the early 80s. He talked about Virginia McMartin's small preschool that started as a pride-piece of the community and ended as possibly the most notorious child-abuse accusation debacle in American history. In August of 1983 the preschool was all over the news. Accusations led to investigations. Investi­gations led to arrests and a trial. And ultimately it all led to the accused abusers' exoneration. But the case brought child abuse to the front of everyone's mind, especially those working with children. We all knew child abuse was an issue, we just didn't talk about it.

As I listened to the FBI investigator talk about necessary safeguards, I have to admit that I, too, was desperate for volunteers. I'd had the mind-set that finding good children's ministry volunteers was like a game of Red Rover. I thought the best way to find volunteers was to call out to God, "Red Rover, Red Rover, send volunteers right over!" God would hear my cry, and whoever came my way and said he or she wanted to volunteer was God's answer to my prayer. And if that person said the magic words: "I volunteered in children's ministry at Brother So-and-So's church" -- man, oh man! I'd hit the mother lode -- willingness and experience!

What was wrong with that thinking? Doesn't it say in the Bible somewhere, "Whosoever comes and is willing, let them help in children's ministry?"

It never dawned on me to pick up the phone, make a call, and find out if that person had been a blessing or a curse at the last church. But as the FBI investigator continued speaking, alarms were flipping on in my mind left and right. And I started to wonder...What had I been thinking? How could I have been so hard up for volunteers that I'd thrown all wisdom and sound judgment out the window? There in the middle of that conference, I started rethinking the vulnerability of my church and children's ministry. I made up my mind to not only provide children and families with a doctrinally safe environment but a physically safe one as well.

At the next break in the conference, other children's pastors and I brainstormed ideas and steps we could take to safeguard our ministries. One pastor, who was also a workshop presenter and had a resource table right next to mine, said he thought the FBI investigator was just too harsh, not forgiving or understanding at all. Several of us thought his reaction was odd -- I guess being of good redneck breeding, to me it was perfectly acceptable to hang all child abusers...in a Christian way, of course. But I discovered shortly after the conference that the children's pastor who'd been so negative about guarding our ministries had been arrested on multiple counts of child abuse and molestation. He was sentenced to prison. The church was devastated. His wife and family were devastated. And the children and families involved were hurt and victimized. It was a huge mess.

That single experience was a pivotal part of my growth as a children's ministry leader. I knew then that I had to do whatever was needed to make it next to impossible for child abusers to get into my church.

The Birds, the Bees, and the Freaks of Nature

Why are churches such vulnerable targets? First, factor in our desperation for volunteers. Then factor in our expectation that everyone has good intentions -- especially when it comes to children. First Corinthians 12:27 says, "All of you together are Christ's body, and each of you is a part of it." That Scripture is talking about believers, but it's easy to forget that not everyone who volunteers follows Jesus. We often don't ask very important questions because we assume we know the person's intentions. Sometimes because we think we know someone, we don't ask sticky questions or do a criminal history investigation. We're not only desperate, we're just too plain trusting.

The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy that church leaders should be blameless and tested. There's nothing wrong with knowing those who serve among you -- it's your responsibility.

We must overcome personal discomfort when it comes to asking questions of potential volunteers. God warned us that in the last days perversions would be found even in the church. Still we resist asking questions of applicants to find out their lifestyle. In my opinion, if you have to have references to flip burgers at McDonald's, you have to have references to work with precious children in the house of faith.

Until recently we as the church didn't walk in wisdom when it came to classroom security and policies. And it might surprise you to hear me say that child molesters know that. Think about it: If I were going to rob a bank -- I'm not, by the way -- I'd look for the target that was least pre­pared to stop me. Most churches I know are easy targets because we just don't believe such a thing will ever happen to us. Besides...we need volunteers!

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