How are You Protecting Your Congregants from Your Staff?

by | Administration, Leadership, News

This week’s sad news revealing sexual misconduct and other serious lapses of behavior among members of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been said to be reflective of the SBC’s lack of unifying leadership. Unlike Catholics and Episcopalians, whose priests answer to bishops and cardinals, Baptist ministers merely answer their calling and are largely autonomous. While that may be a ministerial fact, the reasoning for abuse and subsequent cover-ups doesn’t hold water, as previous controversies have involved other, more structured denominations, including Catholicism. The more likely cause of criminal behaviors committed by church leadership and staff is likely abuse of trust, enabled by a lack of proper screening.

Church staff can engage in any number of criminal behaviors by abusing the trust placed in them, just as members of any organization. Embezzlement of funds would be one example, or stealing of church supplies or other property. But the more heinous crimes are those that make use of the church as a place of trust. Churches, and the leaders within each church, are supposed to help the sick, aid the poor, and protect and guide members through every stage of life, starting in early childhood. This inherent trust makes it desirable for potential or active offenders to pursue a role in their local church, and thus have access to vulnerable church members, such as children. To see where the vulnerability may be found at your church, it’s important to differentiate between Children’s Ministry and Student Ministry.

Children’s Ministry vs. Student Ministry

Children’s ministry is usually structured, with dedicated rooms, a child check-in system, cameras, limited access, and predictable schedule and location. Because the children are very young, there is no need for social media interaction with them during the week, and programming is typically provided on Sunday morning on the church campus.

Student ministry, on the other hand is purposefully relaxed. Meetings may occur in less structured or off-campus locations, and small Bible study and discipleship groups may meet in private homes. Because students are in their early to mid-teens issues related to purity, intimacy and sexuality are regular topics of discussion. In some churches, student ministry participants attend conferences, mission trips, retreats and other activities requiring overnight accommodations, changing of clothes and unstructured free time. Because students in middle school and high school are immersed in online culture, the use of electronic communication presents countless ways to interact with a student. All of these elements make Student Ministry an attractive target for offenders.

According to Kimberlee D. Norris and Gregory S. Love, partners in the Fort Worth, Texas law firm of Love & Norris and founders of MinistrySafe, a service that provides sexual abuse expertise to ministers, “The key method for offenders is to groom the gatekeepers, winning the trust of parents and church leaders alike, providing opportunities for trusted time alone, thereby enabling sexual abuse.” In short, offenders will seek a position of trust and do all they can to win the trust of parents and leaders, so they can have unrestricted access to children.

Untrained defenders

While Church leaders and parents look to the Student Minister to protect students from sexual abuse, Student Ministers commonly lack the appropriate background, education and experience to understand child sexual abuse, sexual abusers and sexual abuse risk. Depending on the church’s size and budget, the Student Minister could be a volunteer, part-time employee, or full-time employee. The Student Minister might be female, but tends to be male. According to Norris and Love, what makes the typical Student Minister a poor guardian against abuse is a series of inherent weaknesses.

The Student Minister is commonly in his/her mid-20s and single or newly married. At this stage in life, the Student Minister has typically received no training related to sexual abuse risk. The Student Minister is a college graduate and may be considering or beginning a seminary degree. Very few undergraduate programs offer information or training related to sexual abuse risk. The Student Minister is also typically overwhelmed with administration, teaching, meeting parents, recruiting volunteers, planning activities, and managing a budget.  Expecting the Student Minister — a young adult with no training in sexual abuse risk — to proactively investigate and evaluate preventative resources is unreasonable at best.

Education is key

 Obviously the onus of preventing and investigating sexual abuse in the church can’t be shouldered entirely by Student Ministers. It is a problem that needs to be addressed by the whole church and it should involve the following steps:

• Understanding Sexual Abuse in Ministry Contexts

• Creating an Effective Safety System

• Skillful Screening Processes and Training

• Abuse Reporting Requirements 

• Allegations of Sexual Abuse — Preparation and Response Plan

• Changes in the law

• Models of Care — Child Victim and Adult Survivor

Because Student Ministers don’t typically attend seminars or conferences, and it’s rare to find comprehensive content on sexual abuse at conferences for church leaders, Norris and Love cofounded MinistrySafe, a service that provides downloadable content for Student Ministers, enabling them to work with their church’s youth remotely, providing only trusted content while educating the ministers themselves. But that only solves part of the problem.

Improving screening

Running a background check on paid staff and volunteers is a vital step in protecting your congregation. Again, remember that a church is like any other organization. It’s almost unheard-of today to apply for even an entry level retail job without submitting to a background check. While you can ask specific questions about someone’s background,  you have to be able to verify the facts by conducting a background check before you allow someone to hold even a low level position in your church. This last point is important because a church is inherently a place of trust. From the maintenance workers to the volunteer parking attendants, each person at your church has a role to play, and each role provides some level of access to your facility and congregation. Know who you’re dealing with, for sure.

There are now services available to help churches fill this specific need. As one example, ACS Technologies has partnered with Verified First, to offer a range of screening products to vet prospective staff. The Children and Youth Volunteer package is specifically designed for anyone wanting to work in that area. The package provides information like if an applicant has been convicted of any crimes, if they’re on the National Sex Offender Registry, and more.  Other packages extend to all volunteers and even leadership staff.

Because church work at its core involves working with people of all ages, and there are many types of abuse, it’s impossible to prevent every type of abuse while still performing the work of the church. However, educating ministers and other leadership on how to identify and deal with abuse, and improving the screening of those who seek to take active roles in the church can vastly reduce the spread of the problem.

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