Phoebe is a two-year-old that regularly attends your children’s ministry. She’s not fully potty-trained yet, so typically one of her teachers—Brooke or Tamika—will change her diaper at least once during Sunday School hour. This week, Tamika calls you to the classroom. She tells you, “For the third week in a row, Phoebe has come to church with bruises—large welts—on her bottom. When I asked her mother about it last week, she told me that Phoebe had fallen off the swing while playing in the backyard. But this week the bruises look fresh. Should I ask Rebecca about this again?”
On Tuesday night, you receive a frantic call from a small group leader. Jack and Sally’s group met, and they asked a high school student who attends your church to watch the kids during the meeting. Eight kids typically hang out in Jack and Sally’s basement with a sitter while the adults meet upstairs. The basement is filled with toys and games, and there’s a reading nook with twinkle lights hanging behind a sheet in the corner. Last night, Mary was playing a board game with some of the girls while the boys played on the other side of the room. In the middle of the game, Mary noticed the boys were quieter than normal. She looked up and saw they were together in the reading nook whispering. When she checked on them, she discovered eleven-year-old Kevin performing a sex act on one of the younger boys while the other boys watched.
One Sunday, your lead pastor pulls you out of the children’s ministry department and assigns you to be part of a prayer team for the morning service. He wants as many staff as possible available to pray with those who will come forward at the end of the service. When the time for prayer comes, Bobby, a gentleman in his forties, comes forward and asks you to pray for him. He tells you, “I’m a registered sex offender. Twenty years ago, I molested my six-year-old daughter. It all came out when my wife and I got divorced, and I’ve been in prison for the last fifteen years. I just got out a couple of months back, and I’ve been attending one of your groups with Phil and his family. I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to come to church without telling you first, but when the pastor invited everyone forward, I decided that I’d come and tell someone.”
How would you respond in each of these scenarios? What do you say at the moment a traumatic scenario happens? What action steps would you take? Who needs to be involved?
Many churches create a child protection policy in order to describe the parameters of a safe environment before a problem arises. Deepak Reju writes in his book On Guard, “A child protection policy (CPP) is a set of self-imposed guidelines that describes how a church intends to protect and care for the children under its care.” In this post, I want to walk through what it might look like for your local church to put a CPP in place for the first time. The following six steps are also helpful if you have a CPP. They’ll help you to ensure that your policies are protecting the kids in your care in the way that they should.
First, put together a team.
This should be a multi-disciplinary group of individuals who will be responsible to develop and implement the child protection policy. They’ll serve as the team putting the policy in place, and they may continue after its adoption as a committee that ensures ongoing compliance and/or certification. Include your children’s and student ministry staff, the pastoral team giving oversight to this process, key volunteers, and anyone else in your church community who could give insight (e.g. social workers, counselors, lawyers, police officers, or child advocates). You may have educators in your church who have been trained in creating emergency response plans or following active-shooter protocols, and they can bring their experience to bear for your local church. At the church where I served for many years, one of our elders’ wives worked as a social worker for women who had been sexually assaulted. Her experience was vital for our team as we developed care plans.
Second, do your homework.
Consult the resources on the ecap.net site, and find other books that will help you form your plan. The first book I’d encourage you to read on child safety is Reju’s On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church (New Growth, 2014). His book will help you identify all of the big child protection categories: governance and church polity, screening and background checks, children’s ministry check-in and check-out processes, facility design, training, as well as how to put together a response plan. Once these key categories are identified, it may be helpful for your team to embrace a divide-and-conquer approach. Assign a team member to research each key protection policy category and then to report back to the team as a whole for discussion.
Third, seek out outside experts.
Your team might consider seeking out an outside group like Church Law & Tax (churchlawandtax.com), GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (netgrace.org), or Ministry Safe (ministrysafe.com). Some of these groups have resources and people who can help you to craft a customized child protection policy for your church. Each of the groups has its own emphasis, and they each have different offerings.
- Church Law & Tax is one of the best places to find out about new legal developments in your state.
- GRACE focuses on local church training and victim advocacy; its goal is to empower Christian communities to recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse.
- Churchcares.com provides free video training on abuse reporting and care for victims of abuse.
- Ministry Safe is a background check company. They will help you put a protection plan and training process together, but their core competency is doing background checks and volunteer vetting.
Fourth, adopt policies and procedures.
Don’t research forever. It’s essential to put your policies down on paper. When you get to the writing stage, be sure to look at Tchividjian and Berkovits’s Child Safeguarding Policy Guide (New Growth, 2017) as well as Jack Crabtree’s Better Safe Than Sued (Zondervan, 2008). By providing concrete examples, these books will help you craft clearly written policies and procedures. They’ll show you language that other churches have chosen to use in their CPP, as well as in their volunteer applications, liability release forms, and reporting forms. Crabtree’s book focuses on protecting students in youth ministry. It can help you answer questions like, “How do I vet church van drivers who help us take students to camp? What first aid training is helpful or necessary for winter or water sports? If we take kids on an overnight trip, what kind of liability forms do we need?”
ECAP has also worked closely with local churches, legal experts, victim advocates, and church insurance companies to develop abuse prevention standards for the accreditation of evangelical churches and ministries. These standards and your church’s insurance company are also helpful resources when creating policies and procedures.
Fifth, begin training and implementation.
As you approach this stage, remember that while your committee may have spent months thinking about the new policies, other staff and volunteers will probably hear about new policies for the first time when they come to training. You must keep this in mind so that you train at a pace that allows your team to digest new policies, understand the reasoning behind them, and learn them well. One of the best resources I’m aware of to help you to train your team is the free Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused videos and handbook. The contributors to this training will walk your staff and volunteers through key responses to physical and sexual abuse as well as through what happens when a reporting call is placed to Child Protective Services.
Finally, review your CPP at least annually.
You’ll want to review any reports to CPS that have been made, any known policy violations, or any other issues that arise. Churches should keep clear records of these matters and the parties involved. This is not a naughty list (so that you can give particular volunteers smaller coffee mugs at Christmas.) No, you write down anything that might help you to adapt your training plan or make necessary adjustments to your CPP.
Here’s an example of why adjustments are necessary: I served as a local church children’s minister for fifteen years. When I began in ministry, smartphones were not what they are today. Now every teacher comes to class with a camera in their phone. One day, two of our college student volunteers photographed their class and posted the picture on Instagram. This concerned two parents, so we addressed it personally with the two college students, encouraging them that—as a matter of wisdom—they shouldn’t post photos of other people’s children on social media. But later, when reviewing our training, one of our staff members pointed out that a number of kids in our care were in the foster system. She observed that posting a picture of one of these kids online might violate our state’s standards for foster families. So we made it a policy—and a regular part of our training—to never take pictures of kids during class and post them on the web. That’s just one example. Here’s the bottom line: Think of your CPP as an evolving tool that can change and improve as your ministry circumstances demand.
Putting a child protection policy and plan in place is essential because Christians have a fundamental responsibility to protect vulnerable children. As Reju writes, “We learn this sense of protection from God who throughout the Bible has a special burden for the young, weak, and oppressed in society.” Before a fearful scenario occurs, follow these five steps and create the kind of policy and plan that will help your church respond with care and wisdom.
 Reju, On Guard, 49.
 Reju, On Guard, 15. He cites Deut. 10:18; Is. 1:17; Jer. 7:5–7; and James 1:27.