Seven years ago, when a new member to Crossroads Community Church in Summerville, S.C., self-identified as a registered child sex offender, the pastor and elders saw it as a God-ordained call to action to examine their church policies to protect children. That new member steered clear of children in the church, but the church leadership wanted to ensure those working with children didn’t haven’t any wrong intentions.
“Many pastors fear volunteer child workers quitting because they are required to do training and background checks,” said David Branton, an elder and AWANA International board chairman. “But most teachers of children are dedicated workers who put children first. To be asked to do something that might protect a child shouldn’t be a problem.”
Cases of child abuse in churches have received national news coverage in the past few years, accounts often made worse by leaders who refused to report the alleged abuse to authorities. Churches that once enjoyed a degree of immunity from litigation have found themselves at risk. As churches grow in size, the question on many leaders’ minds: How can we best protect children in the place where they should be the safest?
Debi Ford, children’s director at Crossroads, remembers the days when she could step into a Sunday school class full of married couples and ask for help in the nursery. Now, volunteer and staff applicants must attend the church for more than six months, undergo a state background check, and a national database search. Further screening includes interviews and references.
Attorney Kimberlee Norris, who operates MinistrySafe, a Texas organization that sets up child safety systems for churches, recommends interviewers trained to spot “grooming” behaviors in a church context and interview questions designed to elicit telltale responses. Beyond that, churches must report immediately when allegations are raised.
Norris said she gets about one call a day regarding abuse or failure to report and is astonished how many church personnel don’t know what has to be reported by law in their state. Many of the people who contact her are from churches in crisis needing help to set up a ministry protection and child abuse prevention system because a crime went unreported.
“From a liability standpoint, they’re dead in the water,” she said.
She recalled one case in which an elder in a Texas church was accused by an adult of molesting him when he was a boy. The church relieved him of the elder position he held for 20 years when he confessed to some sexual improprieties in the past. But leaders failed to report him to law enforcement or investigate within the church. They learned later he was sexually abusing 8- to 12-year-old boys. “They knew and some of it occurred after they knew,” Norris said.
MinistrySafe trains more than 9,000 ministry personnel each month. Norris says the only policy worse than no policy is one that’s not followed. But often, the policies she’s asked to assess fall into two extremes: “We either get a copy of War and Peace or something so ridiculously thin it might as well not exist.” A policy so thick and detailed no one ever reads it could become a liability in a court case if workers haven’t followed its guidelines.
Just because a church develops ministry protection guidelines and a child abuse prevention system before facing a crisis doesn’t mean its staff and volunteers can sit back and relax. The policies must be taught, followed, and updated with changes in ministry. Bill Egner, executive pastor of Christ Chapel Bible Church, in Fort Worth, Texas, describes child protection as “a part of our church’s culture.”
In the late 1990s, when Egner’s church entered a period of rapid growth, the need to “be intentional about child protection” became obvious. Now, the church has an estimated 8,000 attending each week. “It’s been a real challenge to have our child protection efforts encompass all our ministry programs, not just ‘formal’ children’s or youth ministry programs,” he said.
Christ Chapel Bible Church follows Norris’ MinistrySafe system, which includes applications, interviews, references, and criminal background checks. “We have trained our hiring personnel to recognize risk indicators when they appear,” Egner said. As at Crossroads, applicants must be regular attenders for six months before they apply. He said some families have told him they attend the church because they’ve heard their children will be safe there.
“In a world covered in sin, yes, even in my own wonderful church, it gives me great comfort to have a system in place to help protect my children from harm,” said Kimberley Ellis, a Christ Chapel Bible Church member. “It allows our family the peace to do what we are at church to do, love and worship.”