Every Christian organization that serves kids wants to keep them safe. However, each organization is limited in resources: volunteers, expertise, time, etc. Often, church plants and smaller churches especially feel these constraints. A leader in a small church may think, “We can’t do Child Protection! We’re just trying to keep the ship afloat!”
At ECAP, we believe that every Christian organization that serves kids has a responsibility to keep those kids safe. Even small churches and church plants can take steps to protect the children in their care. In fact, small churches may be better suited than larger organizations because it doesn’t take as long to implement change in a smaller group of people than in an organization of hundreds or thousands!
With some determination and creative thinking, small churches and church plants can see to it that their Child Protection policies are robust, so that kids will be safe in their care.
If you are a leader in a small church or church plant, consider these principles:
1. Keep Abuse Prevention a Priority
The past several years have revealed the massive need for Child Protection Programs in every organization that serves kids. Parents are more aware of the prevalence of abuse, and they will expect child protection measures from your church, no matter how small or how new it is.
Furthermore, predators tend to target churches, because Christians are known for being trusting and welcoming. Predators desire environments with easy access to children and limited oversight from others. They may think that a smaller church or church plant would be the best place to find those things. As a ministry leader, you must make it clear that your organization is NOT a safe place for predators!
2. You Don’t Have to Work from Scratch
Starting a church is A LOT of work. The duties of fundraising, writing policies, training volunteers and all the other responsibilities are often assigned to just one or two people, alongside the weekly ministry needs of sermon preparation, counseling, and so much more. Writing child protection policies may seem like the kind of thing that can wait until the church is “more established.”
While it may be tempting to think that way, it’s actually much better to begin implementing child protection policies at the beginning of a church’s existence, rather than introducing new protocols after years of staff and volunteers getting accustomed to systems that lack accountability and oversight.
Fortunately, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to developing Child Protection Policies. You can look for resources from your sending organization, whether its a denomination, association, or a sending church. You can also look to other local organizations that serve kids around you, such as other churches, daycares, and sports organizations. What are their child protection policies? You will likely be able to take what they have developed and apply it to your own organization.
3. Evaluate Your Ministry Environment and Resources
Many people who are approaching Child Protection think that they need to develop a Child Protection Program that is as complex and as detailed as the megachurch down the block. Pursuing that type of program may seem like an overwhelming and impossible task… and it probably is! That would be like a local boutique adopting Target’s distribution practices. You have to customize and know the community where you’re ministering.
Ask some diagnostic questions related to your church’s children’s program: Who is your church trying to reach, and how many children do you reasonably expect to attend? For example, if you’re ministering in a young, urban context, you may be able to establish one toddler/preschool room and grow from there. Or maybe you pastor a church in an area with a large elderly community. The amount of volunteers you need may fluctuate seasonally, based on when families tend to visit around summer and the holidays.
It’s easy to get hung up on the megachurches with separate rooms for infants, crawlers, and walkers. You may not need to separate young children by age or grade. The tiniest infants tend to check in at lower rates and require more hands than a preschool classroom. You may be able to just create a quiet room for parents of newborns with two volunteer overseers, then start a class for 1-3 year old’s.
This is why ECAP encourages an annual review of your Child Protection Program, in order to evaluate ministry needs and resources, and to apportion them appropriately as your Children’s Ministry changes.
4. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
As in any organization, the key to success is communication. Getting a message across tends to be easier in smaller churches and church plants, since there are fewer people to reach, and because there is usually more meaningful buy-in from those involved in the organization.
The first thing to make sure you are communicating is the need for Children and Youth Volunteers. Make a point of actively recruiting for your youth programs. Consider what other ministries within the church you can scale down or postpone implementing in favor of directing volunteers to the children’s or youth ministries if there is a drastic need. While still employing proper screening techniques, you want to make the on-ramp to volunteering as easy as possible for members of your church.
Ministry leaders should also seek to communicate what the church is doing concerning Child Protection. You can tell the parents what kind of screening you’re doing to keep their children safe. No parent wants to endanger their child, and they are probably aware of the risks. This education will benefit families beyond the walls of the church.
Finally, if you have to limit your children’s ministry offerings due to lack of staffing, tell parents why. Transparency here will increase trust. You might be surprised at how they react. It may encourage someone who was reluctant to volunteer to sign up, or you may get some creative solutions from people in the congregation. The wonderful thing about church plants and small churches is that ministry is a community effort.
5. Get Creative!
With limited resources and perhaps non-traditional meeting spaces, you may have to get creative as you seek to keep kids safe. It’s possible that some of the people in your congregation may have expectations of a Children’s Ministry that a small church or church plant can’t meet. Even pastors and ministry leaders can get caught up in comparing what their church can do with the other church down the block. But the New Testament only expects us to love and disciple children (Mark 9:36-37, 10:13-16; Ephesians 6:4; James 1:27). It does not require a specific format or program.
Your ministry context is unique, and the list of things you could do is endless, but here are some suggestions to consider:
- If you’re including children in the worship service, talk about why. Establish a culture and make a consistent message that your church is for the entire family, and welcome that joyful noise. Consider including a special time for children in the service, such as a 5-minute children’s devotion and song.
- The smaller your children’s and youth offerings the more creative you have to be to communicate your love for kids to their families.
- Consider small goodie bags for kids who need to stay in the service. A small stuffed animal or coloring sheet can help keep kids engaged during a sermon.
- Establish a game with older children and teens that if they can tell you a sermon point or the verse from the day, they get a candy bar.
- Set up a play zone at the front of the meeting space or in another area and have parents be responsible for their own kids.
- Limit child care to one service per Sunday or one weekend a month, and scale up from there.
- Have children join the families for worship, then be released to child care rooms during the sermon. By shortening the class length, you may be able to attract more volunteers.
- Implement registration for child care (we’ve gotten used to registration for church events post-Covid) so you can keep the numbers manageable and staff accordingly (with alternates for call-outs or unexpected guests).
- Encourage youth to volunteer with children. Middle and high schoolers can be very helpful in caring for children. Many of them already babysit their siblings and others. Older youth may be looking for opportunities for service hours as they apply for colleges and scholarships. This is also an opportunity to teach them about the importance of serving in a church, rather than just consuming.
- Youth ministries may be able to partner up with another local church. Have frank discussions with the other church about their screening process before doing so.
- Consider requiring parents to serve periodically, as assistants alongside fully screened children’s volunteers. You have to be very careful with this, addressing the role of parent volunteers with families and establishing clear boundaries (no diapering or bathroom use, etc.). This should be used as a last resort.
6. Vital Policy Elements
Finally, there are some necessary policy elements that every organization that serves kids must include if they want to keep those kids safe.
As a part of your policy manual, you should require Screening for everyone who works with kids. This should include a criminal background check and a personal reference check. This could be a great opportunity for young parents to serve as the screeners. Often parents with young children at home won’t volunteer for children’s ministry. They may be tired and church is a break for them. But that same stay-at-home mom may be able and willing to check references for volunteers during naptime.
Second, you should observe proper staffing ratios when taking care of children. Keeping two unrelated adults in every childcare room is necessary in order to ensure adults are being help accountable. If other elements need to be phased in later, this “Rule of Two” will help prevent overt acts.
If you’re a leader in a small church or church plant, hopefully you can see that there are steps you can take to protect children in your care. While we shouldn’t be motivated by numbers, establishing your church as a safe place for kids will go a long way in showing new families that you care about them and their children. God asks us to be faithful with the resources we’re given. Will you be faithful with the children under your care?