Connecting and Resourcing for Safer Churches
During coffee time in the church hall after a Sunday-morning service in southern Ontario, I found myself talking with a young couple new to the area who were searching for a church home. Jacob* said he had appreciated the sermon, and he commented on how welcoming and friendly the congregation had been. Sharon* agreed and added, “Your church really seems to take abuse prevention seriously. I like that. It’s important.”
She had noticed the posters and business cards in the restrooms providing contact information for reporting, counseling, and other abuse prevention and response efforts. I had not linked the work of our safe church team with outreach before, but in showing a commitment to creating a safe church environment, our church had connected with this couple.
New classis safe church coordinators Carolyn Hoekstra, Natasha VanderVies, and Abby DeZeeuw are interested in connections. As they start serving Classes Quinte, Ontario Southwest, and Northern Michigan, respectively, they hope to connect with local churches and improve access to resources related to keeping people safe in their worshiping communities.
Hoekstra recently retired from a 35-year career with Karis Disability Services (formerly Christian Horizons) and is no stranger to abuse prevention. She helped train employees with Karis on reducing the risk and vulnerability of abuse, both as support professionals and for the vulnerable people they support.
“With this lens, I have looked at how the members – primarily children and elderly – within our church family may be vulnerable to abuse and have thus provided information and training toward prevention,” she said. In her home congregation, Grace Christian Reformed Church in Cobourg, Ont., Hoekstra participated in developing and updating safe church policies.
From this experience, she said, she hopes to provide abuse prevention information and training to churches in Classis Quinte, and thus help to improve access to resources for creating safer churches. And to help bring consistency among churches in the classis, Hoekstra plans to create access to short training sessions and to a standard form on which churches and ministries can indicate that training has been completed.
VanderVies has served on the safe church team at First CRC in Sarnia, Ont., for five years, working on abuse prevention policies and education. “Becoming a part of the [classis] safe church ministry was another way for me to actively participate in abuse prevention not only within the church setting but also in connecting with God’s community outside of the church,” she explained.
DeZeeuw is an ordained minister in the CRC and is taking a break from full-time ministry. Having mentored friends, family, and young people who had experienced abuse, she said she noticed that sometimes a church’s stance on abuse can appear reactive instead of proactive. “My goal is to help the Classis Northern Michigan churches to be proactive and to offer resources and awareness around safe church ministry and abuse prevention,” she said.
Connecting with each church in their respective classes, said the new safe church coordinators, will help them to see what safe church practices and policies are already in place, to notice and tend to gaps in education or training, to make sure churches know what resources are available to them, and to answer any immediate questions and concerns.
Of the 49 classes that make up the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 37 have designated safe church coordinators. Thanks to the generous support of ministry shares, Thrive’s safe church ministry consultant, Amanda Benckhuysen, is able to meet quarterly with groups of safe church coordinators to offer support, ideas, best practices, and new resources.
“Safe church coordinators are key to helping and supporting churches in their classis with policy making, training, and responding to situations of abuse,” said Benckhuysen. “They are an especially important resource for smaller churches who often have unique needs and limited resources when it comes to making the church a safer space. Because safe church coordinators are appointed by the classis, they often have an opportunity to report at classis meetings in ways that create greater awareness about abuse and vigilance in abuse prevention and response.”
Abuse and victimization is an uncomfortable topic for many, but safe church coordinators at the denominational, classis, and congregational levels work to ensure that people are aware of the reality and can take steps to prevent abuse and create safe spaces in their churches.
“I know how harmful and damaging abuse can be and how it can impact a person, their family, and their church and spiritual life,” VanderVies said. “Every effort we put into prevention is worth the protection of even just one of God’s flock.”
This fall, CRC News is sharing stories that demonstrate the impact of ministry shares. To learn more, visit crcna.org/ministryshares or invite Jeff Bolt (U.S.) or Roshani Morton (Canada) to speak to your council, congregation, or classis.
*Names changed to protect identity.