Jim Wideman delivers his 7 tools to keeping child predators out of children’s ministry.
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. But we must be vigilant about keeping child predators out of our ministries.
“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?”
A Change in Recruiting
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? 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 predators…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 we would find perversions, 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!
7 Ways to Stop a Predator
Here are the precautionary measures I still use today to protect our children and our church from falling prey to offenders.
1. Set high qualification standards.
You can always settle for less. In desperation, we often do. But if you want high-caliber volunteers, set your standards high. Today, I have the greatest group of volunteers I’ve ever had, but I also require more from my volunteers than I’ve ever required. All our volunteers must’ve made a faith commitment to Jesus. Our volunteers must be faithful, supportive church members in good standing, and live what they profess. Our volunteers must support our leadership and pastors.
We use a rigorous volunteer application to find out whether potential volunteers meet our high standards. I’ve found that the lengthy application itself has been an effective weeding-out tool because candidates who have something to hide won’t apply at all. If someone won’t complete a four-page application, believe me, they won’t make a very good volunteer. Our comprehensive application also helps me match candidates’ abilities and strengths to the most appropriate ministry.
2. Require references.
We require three references, at least one of which must be a former pastor or ministry supervisor, and we always contact references. We ask basic questions such as, “How long have you known the candidate?” and “What is the nature of your relationship?” We also ask whether the reference would have any reservations leaving his or her children with the candidate. I can’t tell you how many times the reference the candidate used revealed a problem—and sang like a bird. A pastoral reference once informed me that our potential volunteer had molested two children in his church. When I confronted the potential volunteer, he said he really didn’t think I’d call his references. I’ve uncovered hundreds of child abusers, sexual deviants, and unqualified volunteers just from this one important step. Require references, and always make contact.
3. Require a criminal history investigation to catch predators.
This is the single most important screening process to have. A nationwide search is more effective than a state search, and your perfect scenario is to search in every state candidates have resided in. Ask for previous addresses so you can establish whether candidates are who they say they are. If someone withholds information about a previous address, that’s a red flag.
Make sure that the background service you use also verifies Social Security information. I’ve discovered people who weren’t who they said they were and people with multiple Social Security numbers. I’ve even discovered people who were a part of the witness protection program. If the mob is looking for a potential volunteer, I believe that’s something I need to know. I don’t want that person found in the middle of my preschool classroom. A great background check resource is Group’s Shepherd’s Watch.
Have your service search the department of corrections records. I’ve found people who did time in prison, but because they were arrested by the county police, it didn’t show up on their criminal history. I had an applicant who’d just been arrested and released for exposing himself to an undercover officer in a gay bar. Search the FBI’s known sex offenders list. Several candidates have turned up with multiple outstanding warrants for abuse-related crimes.
Some churches say they can’t spend the funds for criminal history investigations. You can’t afford not to make this investment—it’s a lot cheaper than a lawsuit and broken lives. The negativity and damage an investigation or trial generates are more costly than your church could ever afford.
4. Ask lifestyle information.
It’s amazing to me that people will answer straightforward questions. Over the years people have said yes to questions such as, “Have you ever been accused of or convicted of spousal abuse in any form?” “Have you ever been accused of or convicted of child abuse or a crime involving actual or attempted sexual molestation of a minor?” “Do you view pornography?”
I’ve had numerous people answer yes to these questions right on the application. Case closed.
5. Contact previous churches.
Did this person leave the previous church in good graces? There have been volunteers I’ve disciplined or dismissed who went to serve in other churches. Those churches never contacted us about why the person left. I could’ve saved those churches some trouble if they’d only asked a few simple questions. I ask candidates to list all churches they’ve been a part of in the past five years, and I contact those churches. Sometimes you find people never attended a church they listed, they only wanted to impress you. But they never thought you’d check them out.
6. Conduct personal interviews.
We meet with candidates, review their applications, and discuss their references. I ask key questions that help reveal the candidate’s motives. It’s vital to have someone who’s spiritually keen and gifted in discernment present in the interview because our need for volunteers shouldn’t override spiritual discernment. I’ve learned that God’s voice and the voice of wisdom are the same. Listen to your heart. Don’t override the voice of wisdom.
7. Develop policies to keep children safe from predators and adults free from accusations.
Once volunteers are in place, assign a master teacher to mentor them. Require all volunteers to know and follow our procedures. Two volunteers are always present with kids, never one alone. As a best practice to protect team members and kinds, don’t permit teenagers or males to change diapers or take children to the restroom. We’ve also placed surveillance cameras in hallways and other key areas to keep our classrooms and facilities safe.
These seven steps have stopped more than 400 accused or convicted offenders from entering my ministries. Use them yourself to transform your church from an easy target to a fortress of safety and spiritual growth for children.
Looking for more information on keeping your ministry safe? Check out these posts!