Safe Church Policy

Introduction: How This Toolkit Functions

When it comes to safeguarding our churches, the greatest resources to our congregations are all of you—who deeply care about the well-being and wholeness of persons who are most vulnerable. This toolkit is not intended to be exhaustive; instead, it's a tool that hopefully propels you to take actions toward cultivating places in which the value of each person is honored and people are free to worship and grow free from abuse—and where abuse has occurred, the response is compassion and justice that foster healing. More specifically, this toolkit is intended to

  • help you start the important work of policy formation.
  • share some basic important components of a policy.
  • share some key “go-to” places for further assistance.

A Vision for Why

Why Abuse Prevention/Safe Church Policies?

Not everyone gets excited about policies. However, forming a policy in your church can be one of the most loving things your community can do—especially if it prevents a community from experiencing the devastating effects of abuse. Having safe church policies (also called abuse prevention policies) in place shows that we value one another, especially children and others who are most vulnerable among us. Policies help to reduce risk and create a nurturing environment to worship and grow in faith while reducing the risk of abuse.

Further Reasons for Policies in our Churches

  • To reflect the high value that Jesus places on children. As his church, we reflect him by ensuring that honor and dignity are shown to every person created in his image.
  • To create opportunities to talk about abuse and increase awareness. Abuse thrives in silence and secrecy, and we must not let it thrive in our communities (Eph. 5).
  • To educate staff, leaders, and volunteers about abuse, the dynamics of power, and the responsibility it requires.
  • To respond effectively with justice and compassion to situations of abuse.
  • To practice due diligence while also satisfying possible requirements from insurance companies or legal counsel.

Let’s Listen to Jesus

About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

—Matthew 18:1-6, NLT

Many parables and teachings of Jesus depict a contrast between people with different levels of resources and power. There is a consistent message throughout our redemption story that people who abuse their power are opposing the kingdom of God and the way things are supposed to be.

An abuse prevention policy is a safeguard for churches, helping to ensure the safety of every single person included in the wide body of Christ, all of whom are made in the very image of God. In addition, policies help us to honor and protect those who are most vulnerable among us, who are most at risk of being taken advantage of by people who misuse positional and spiritual authority. Children are seen as vulnerable because of their size and development. Adults too have various kinds of vulnerabilities—including disabilities, life situations, or cultural differences, to name a few.

Ezekiel 34 provides another scriptural picture about abuse. It shows God’s shepherds taking advantage of the sheep instead of protecting, feeding, and caring for them. Leaders in positions of authority use God’s people for their own appetites, pleasure, and gain. Yet another picture, from 2 Samuel 11, tells the story of Israel’s King David, who perpetrated sexual abuse in the rape of Bathsheba and who murdered her husband.

All of these stories, and many more, show that abuse is not easily excused—there are devastating effects, and the road to justice and mercy is long and difficult. The good news is that God continues to bring his kingdom to earth, where abuse will be no more, and true justice and mercy continue to flow from Jesus, our ultimate High Priest, King of kings, and true Prophet. We as his followers must do well to uphold the honor of any position of leadership, especially ordained positions in the church.

Getting Started

First Considerations of Developing a Policy

  • Fit Your Context: Although it is useful to consult examples from other congregations, do not use a policy that was not created for your church. Your policy must fit your individual church environment and programs, and it be must be something that all leaders, volunteers, and participants are able to follow. Take time to weigh the unique risks and benefits for your congregation.
  • Consult with Your Leaders: Each church program, ministry, or associated group should be represented and consulted while creating a policy. Creating a policy may take longer this way; however, there are worthwhile benefits gained through an engaging process. By having these extra viewpoints, you will have a good understanding of how these ministries function at the ground level and what risks or limitations they present.
  • Tips for Staying on Track While Developing Your Policy: Have your safe church team create a schedule or timeline that will provide some structure to maintain productivity as you work on your policy. Consider working on manageable chunks of the policy at a given time; it can be overwhelming to think about every last part of your policy. If you have many members who are assisting at the beginning stage, it may be beneficial to have one person put parts of the policy in writing to be considered by the team. This process may also be helpful for more tangible feedback, and collaborating by means of shared-document tools such as Google docs can be especially helpful. Also consider other methods that will allow your team members to use their strengths—for example, assigning different components of the policy to the attention of smaller groups that will then present back to the larger team. When you finally have a draft of your policy developed, you may wish to ask neighboring churches, or your classis safe church team, to provide feedback from a fresh perspective.
  • Seek Counsel: Policies should be reviewed by your church legal counsel and/or your insurance carrier. These representatives are sources of invaluable information and are trained to look for “worst-case scenarios” and ways to avoid them. In addition, they can make sure that policies are compliant with national, provincial or state, and local laws that apply to churches, which vary from place to place.
  • Post it! Consider posting your policy on your church website, and have copies of it in visible in easily accessible spaces in your building. This will let people know that you care about maintaining an abuse-free environment for everyone and will remind your congregation to be aware of your safe church/abuse prevention practices.

Philosophy

Why establish a child safety policy? What is the biblical foundation for the policy? How might this policy reflect our church’s vision? Who will benefit from this policy?

A safe church policy is not simply a document to fulfill the requirements of insurance. Safe church practices are followed by a covenant community to protect and ensure that the value of each person is honored, and to create an environment where people are free to worship and grow free from abuse. In addition, such policies help churches respond with compassion and justice to incidents of abuse, which can foster healing for individuals and the community.

To help start your policy development, we have made available other congregations’ examples of “Philosophy of Policy.” You can find numerous examples in our Appendix section. We encourage you to create a philosophy of why you have a policy that reflects your unique community.

Definitions of Abuse

What type of abuse does the policy address? Does your community have a common definition of abuse? How does the definition reflect various kinds of abuse? And how might the definition vary, depending on whether a child, youth, or vulnerable adult is involved?

When drafting a safe church policy, it is crucial to clearly define some important terms. Clear definitions will assist in identifying and preventing abuse.

Legal definitions for abuse vary from state to state and from province to province. We encourage each church to incorporate current legal definitions into its policy, including the age of legal consent. For information in the U.S., visit childwelfare.gov/topics. If you are looking for Canadian definitions and laws, you can start at the Canadian Welfare Research Portal.

While it is wise to outline your state’s definitions, you are not limited merely by them. We encourage churches to define all types of abuse in order to take steps toward prevention. The various types of abuse you may want to define could include sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and spiritual abuse. It may also help to define the terms child, youth, and vulnerable adult.

It is important to note that at the core of every kind of abuse is an imbalance of power, in which the one who has the power takes advantage of the other. Power comes from various sources; we are not all on an equal playing field. Children are almost always under the power of someone else. Adults also may have various kinds of vulnerabilities, including mental and physical conditions. Inequalities may also be created by differing positions in the church, as well as by societal inequalities related to socioeconomic background, gender norms, or language barriers, etc. It’s important that we never minimize the authority that is vested in any leadership position in the church. Special consideration must be given to leadership and ordained positions in the church, including, but not limited to, minister of the Word, commissioned pastor, youth pastor, elder, deacon, and other ministry leaders. To learn more about power and control, become familiar with the Power and Control Wheel, used extensively by many to understand the dynamics of power in abuse situations.

Screening Leaders and Volunteers

What criteria will be followed to screen and select volunteers and staff? Is the process the same for all volunteers and church leadership? Who obtains and reviews the application/screening materials? Who approves the applications? After the screening process is completed, how are screening materials stored? When do periodic re-screenings need to happen?

One important component of abuse prevention is holding ministry leaders to high standards. Appropriate screening for staff, elders, deacons, ministry leaders, and volunteers is essential. Along with an application, an interview, and reference checks, a criminal background check should be part of the screening process, especially for leaders who work with children, youth, and vulnerable adult populations. Properly screening your leaders will require some effort, time, and money; but if you’ve ever dealt with the horrific impacts of abuse, you will understand that these efforts are worthwhile.

Each congregation must weigh the risks, benefits, and costs in determining which positions should require interviews, reference checks, and background checks. The resources from Brotherhood Mutual Insurance on Who to Screen may be helpful.

Once the screening procedures are outlined, decide how you will keep records of the screening materials. Make sure to re-screen your staff and volunteers on a regular basis, every 2 to 5 years, to ensure the safety of the congregation. Some limited background screening services are free for nonprofits—for example, the Michigan State Police offers ICHAT: a state-wide internet criminal history access tool. However, a state background check has limits; consider using that in conjunction with a national background check.

The following organizations have been successfully used by CRC congregations and ministries to help secure background checks:

Protect My Ministry is committed to helping faith-based organizations maintain a safe environment so that they can focus on fulfilling their mission. Protect My Ministry offers a process, products, and solutions that work for churches. A discount is available for CRC congregations through Protect My Ministry when you use this link.

Plan to Protect prioritizes abuse prevention and vulnerable sector protection. Plan to Protect equips your team with effective and customized policies, procedures, and training.

ScreeningONE offers a comprehensive suite of screening solutions.

myBackCheck provides Canadians the opportunity to obtain background checks online and share them wherever they work or volunteer.

HireRight is a global agency for a very broad reach.

Training Volunteers and Leaders

How will this policy be implemented? What are the core elements of your policy that need to be taught regularly? How often will trainings take place? Who will be facilitating the trainings, and who will be required to attend?

Having an approved written policy is not enough. An annual “refresher” training is recommended for all leaders and volunteers, while it is recommended that those who are new to the policy be given a more specific orientation to the policies they are being asked to follow. There are so many ways to teach a policy to staff, leaders, volunteers, parents, and sometimes even kids or vulnerable adults themselves! Try integrating case scenarios or even “graded” quizzes into your trainings to pique the interest of your audience.

Preventative Policies for Leaders and Volunteers

General Policies

What ministries do the policies cover? What are expectations for the supervision of ministry leaders and volunteers? What will the church do to protect minors in its care? What are appropriate behaviors and boundaries between leaders and youth?

The general policy section of an abuse prevention policy tends to vary, depending on your community and the variety of ministries of your church. Protocols and expectations should be clearly understood by all staff, volunteers, parents, and participants. Some examples may include visibility requirements for each room or office on adult to child ratios. Best practices say that there should be at least two unrelated adults in any space where there are children or vulnerable people present. Many churches also include social media policies as well. In the age of digital and social media there are countless ways inappropriate interactions may happen. Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum, there is often a process that sets the stage for abuse to occur, known as grooming.

Discipline or Classroom Management Policies

What are acceptable and unacceptable forms of discipline? What are some tools for managing inappropriate behavior and lack of focus? Are there situations in which discipline crosses a line and becomes abusive?

The church community has the potential to provide the very best context for children to learn and grow. As humans, we all experience the effects of the fall into sin, and sometimes we mess up. This is especially true in the case of children, who learn from what they experience and are only just beginning to understand the difference between right and wrong. It can be helpful in an abuse prevention policy to outline the appropriate and inappropriate forms of discipline in the various children’s programs at your church.

Supervision Policies

How will your church hold volunteers and staff accountable for the way they conduct themselves and respond to situations? What situations have the highest risks? What additional steps must leaders take in special circumstances—for example, in the event of an overnight activity?

Each leader should have clear expectations about what is expected and who is holding them accountable.

This section of the abuse prevention policy can either be detailed or simple, depending on your church. Some churches find it important to lay out what is considered a high-risk situation versus a low-risk situation. The supervision policy can also include the numbers of adults that should be supervising the children and youth programs at the church. If your youth group participates in any sort of off-site or overnight activity, it is necessary to create specific guidelines for such events.

Transportation Policies

Are youth transported to and from church-sponsored events by volunteers and staff? If so, what precautions are taken to ensure safety? What state/provincial laws apply to this part of the policy?

High school youth groups are full of fun (and sometimes even wild) activities. However, crazy driving by youth group leaders should never happen. Driving is among the riskiest activities not only because of physical risks but also because of the potential for one-on-one situations.

For this section of the Safe Church policy, it is also important to look into any state or provincial laws that may apply specifically to transportation. You may want to check with your insurance carrier to see if they have recommended guidelines. For example, are there criteria that must be met for someone to be an approved driver for your youth programs?

 

Reporting Suspected Abuse

Why, How, and What to Report

When and how do staff and volunteers report suspected abuse? Who is your resource person when suspected abuse arises? What are the mandated reporting laws in your state or province, and how are you making sure church leaders know about them?

Clear guidelines on why, how, and what to report when there is suspected abuse is vital to a strong policy. State and provincial laws also vary regarding who must report suspected abuse. Every adult in Canada has the “duty to report” known or suspected child maltreatment by law, according to Canadian child welfare laws. In the United States, each state has different laws concerning “mandated reporters”; these are people who are required to report if there is suspected abuse of children or vulnerable adults. There are legal/criminal consequences for failing to report suspected abuse when you are a mandated reporter. However, you don’t need to be a mandated reporter to report suspected abuse. We encourage all churches to put policies in place clarifying that any person who suspects abuse should report it to proper authorities.

When a child discloses abuse, each church should also have protocols in place to properly care for the one disclosing. Keeping the one disclosing abuse out of danger should be the number-one priority. If you find that you are unsure about reporting, it is best to contact the appropriate authorities anyway. You may tell them what you saw or heard that makes you suspect neglect or abuse and ask them, “Is this something I need to report?” If they say it should be reported, then go ahead with identifying information and make the report. You may also make a report anonymously. Failure to report can lead to criminal liability, so, when in doubt, report. Do not investigate! Leave any investigation to specially trained experts. Our first priority must be to prevent future harm. Reporting may be the best way to prevent harm and to begin helpful intervention.

Reporting abuse between two adults is an entirely different situation. Unlike children, adults may act on their own behalf. The role of the church is to respond with love and empathy, offering options and walking alongside, while always allowing the adult to make their own decisions for their own life and to take steps toward healing and justice at their own pace. Unless the incident of abuse is observed and immediate intervention is necessary, do not confront the alleged offender.

Please refer to Responding to Abuse: A Toolkit for Churches for more information.

 

Responding to Situations

Responding to Disclosure

What should volunteers and leaders do when someone shares an instance of abuse?

The following is an excerpt from Responding to Abuse: A Toolkit for Churches:

Listen! Listen! Listen! Carefully, and without judgment, listen to any disclosure or allegation of abuse. To be heard is one of the greatest needs of someone who has suffered abuse. So, by simply listening, you are already offering something more valuable than you might imagine. . . .

If a minor is involved . . .

Determine whether this is a reportable offense. Affirm the child. Know who to contact in your church. Support those involved. The role of the church is to provide pastoral care to all who are directly involved. Confidentiality is especially important when a minor is involved, and there may be important reasons not to talk at all about the situation during an investigation. However, the situation may be too heavy for family members and those directly involved to carry alone. A safe church team member can act with extreme confidentiality in a walk-alongside role to support those who are hurting. Community resources may be available to offer various kinds of support as well.

Responding to Domestic Abuse

What should the church do in situations of domestic abuse?

Pastors are often the first point of contact for those who are victims of domestic violence, says Rev. Amy Gopp in her article titled “Faith Communities Must Do Better When Survivors Seek Help.” This is all the more reason for our churches to speak up on the topic of domestic violence, and for faith leaders to understand the dynamics at play in every domestic violence situation.

Faith Trust Institute encourages all communities of faith to speak up and work together to end sexual and domestic violence. On their website, they respond to this frequently asked question: “What can I do to be helpful if an abusive situation is revealed?”

  • Listen to the victim and believe them. They often need to hear that the abuse is not their fault, and not God's will.

  • They also need to hear that they are not alone and that help is available.

  • Let them know that without intervention, abuse often escalates in frequency and severity over time.

  • Remember to seek expert assistance. Refer domestic-abuse victims only to specialized domestic violence counseling programs, not to couples counseling. Help them find a shelter, a safe home, or advocacy resources to offer protection. Suggesting merely to return home places them and their children in real danger.

  • Hold the abuser accountable. Don't minimize the abusive behavior. Support them also to seek out specialized batterers counseling to help change behavior.

  • If reconciliation is to occur, it can be considered only after the above steps have taken place.

  • If there is a child involved, remember to keep in mind the mandated reporting laws in your state or province. In the case of an adult, it is good to hear their whole story. Empower the adult to make their own decisions. Don’t try to step in and solve the situation on your own—domestic violence situations are among the most dangerous. It is not our responsibility to fix the problem; we can only offer resources, support, and encouragement.

Contact a local domestic violence shelter for help. On the Network we have a list of resources as well as a webinar that gives more information about the church’s role in situations involving domestic abuse.

Consider creating your own domestic violence policies with the assistance of your local domestic violence organization. Christian Reformed churches in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area have done just that as a part of the Safe Haven Ministries Domestic Violence Church Certification program. The domestic violence shelter near you is ready to help congregations and can be a valuable partner.

Responding to an Allegation against a Church Leader

What avenues does your church have in place when someone is bringing forth an allegation against a church leader?

It may be quite shocking to hear of an allegation of abuse against a church leader. For this reason, Safe Church Ministry has developed a resource specifically for such situations: Responding to Abuse: A Toolkit for Churches. One section is designated for situations involving abuse by a church leader. We always encourage that persons bringing forward an allegation be listened to, cared for, and taken seriously.

It may be helpful to list in your policy whom should be contacted when an allegation of abuse comes forward, and the list may include the safe church team of the congregation as well as a safe church classis representative. Know also that Safe Church Ministry staff are available to assist you in navigating such a situation.

Your policy may also specifically mention the CRCNA’s Advisory Panel Process that has been approved by synod for use in situations of alleged abuse against a church leader. This thorough process can assist a council and/or a person bringing forth an allegation, when needed.

Responding to the Congregation (Disclosure Policy)

What information must be shared with the congregation? What should be held in confidence? What must be said for a congregation to properly move forward when a situation of abuse has occurred?

When an abuse allegation is brought against a church leader, it is never disconnected from the rest of the community. While the focus is on the persons directly involved in the situation, it is important to practice a healthy level of transparency with the community to maintain trust and minimize gossip and hearsay. Situations of abuse can get very complicated very quickly—and even more so if a pastor is accused of perpetrating abuse.

Proper follow-up after Responding

What further steps need to be taken after the allegation is reported or the incident is dealt with in an appropriate manner? How do we take care of those who responded to the incident? Is debriefing necessary, and who should be included?

After the allegation of abuse is brought to a conclusion or resolution, it’s a good idea to have a process in place to evaluate how the incident was handled and what might be learned. Also, some of the safe church team members or members of the congregation may still be affected by the incident even after the process is “complete.” In this case, congregations must take care of the persons who have been affected by the incident, whether directly or indirectly.

Consider a "Restorative Circle" as a means to process the situation. Contact Safe Church Ministry for additional information. Or read more about restorative practices in the synod report about restorative congregations.

Criminal Sexual History 

Reintegrating People who have a Criminal Sexual History

What do you do when you find out someone in your congregation has a criminal sexual conduct record? What do you do if you find out a staff member or volunteer has a serious criminal offense in their past?

Those who have criminally offended need the saving grace God, just like anyone else. Having a Christian community is often an important part of the pathway to reconciliation with society and with God. At the same time, we want to maintain a safe environment for everyone in our congregations, particularly those who are most vulnerable. How can we achieve both of these goals?

One way you can involve someone with a criminal record into worship of a church is by setting specific parameters around their participation and by educating your congregation. This network article: Criminal Sexual History and Involvement in Church: Resources, provides good resources on this topic, including several policies and covenant agreements with those who have a history of criminal sexual conduct. We want to make sure that those who have criminal offenses on their record can be welcomed, while also are given extra boundaries and accountability for the well-being and safety of everyone in the congregation.

Training and Implementing

Education on Policies and Procedures

What is included in the training? How long will the training be and how often will staff and volunteers have to attend the training? Who is required to attend the training?

A policy is only useful when it is carefully followed. In order to follow the policy, one must know what the policy says. Creating a safe church policy is just one step in the process. The next several steps involve how the community follows the policy, lives it out, and increases their awareness and understanding of abuse.

For this reason, we encourage every church to have a safe church team to equip the congregation in abuse awareness, prevention and response. Regular trainings led by members of the safe church team empowers parents, volunteers, staff and church leaders to: effectively follow the policy, maintain a safer environment at church, and increase awareness as a whole that helps to create a culture of restoration.

Contact Safe Church Ministry for more information about forming a safe church team.

Appendices

Sample Policies

The policies listed here are samples only and are not officially endorsed by Safe Church Ministry in any way. In addition, these samples may not reflect the church's most current policy. Please note the following:

  • We discourage copying/pasting another church's policy - each church must develop policies that fit their own unique context, and create buy-in from the congregation so that policies are properly integrated. 
  • Further, policies should always be reviewed by a legal professional.
  • Lastly, consider posting your policy publicly on your church website, and have visible copies of it in accessible spaces in your building. This will let people know that you care about maintaining an abuse-free environment for everyone and will remind your congregation to be aware of your safe church/abuse prevention practices.

The below sample policies are from Christian Reformed Churches that have allowed their policies to be posted. Please note that to protect the identity of the actual churches that created these policies, we have changed their names to: Sample Project CRC, Representative of Life CRC, Mid-Michigan Church, and Another CRC. The area in which the churches are located are also noted below:

Also, please check out the wonderful sample policies from Doves Nest, including their short sample policy and longer sample policy. They also have resources in Spanish: Muestra póliza en Español: PDF or Word

Please email safechurchministry@crcna.org for questions or if you would like these samples in a different format.

Books

Preventing Child Abuse. This resource provides guidelines for churches and nonprofits to create policies and procedures for abuse prevention. Available for purchase from Faith Alive Christian Resources; available for viewing in the CRC Digital Library.

The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide: For Churches and Ministries. This highly recommended book was developed in 2017 by GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment and written by Basyle Tchividjian and Shira M. Berkovits.

Let the Children Come. This book provides helpful advice for how churches can create a safer environment for children. Available for purchase from Amazon.

Church Board Guide to a Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Policy. Available for purchase through Church Law and Tax Store.

Preventing Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry. Available for purchase through Church Law and Tax Store, this resource helps churches prepare policies to prevent sexual abuse in the youth ministry context.

Websites

Church Mutual Safety Resources. Church Mutual Insurance Company offers a range of resources available for purchase for creating safe church policies.

Brotherhood Mutual. This insurance company also offers free or low-cost safety and risk management publications for Christian ministries.

Dove’s Nest. This organization is dedicated to equipping faith communities to keep children and youth safe, with many helpful resources.

Reducing the Risk. A child sexual abuse awareness program.

PowerPoint Presentation

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