I’m sick at heart over the seemingly endless reports of children being abused by a volunteer at a church. The most recent? At least 14 young children were sexually abused by a man in South Carolina as he volunteered during his church’s weekend services.
Why is this happening? Yes, because of evil. But sometimes it’s because of negligence. Jesus made it very clear that we were to “let the children come” to Him (Matthew 19:14), but many churches do too little to ensure that it’s a safe experience. Here are seven things churches can do to make sure children are safe.
1. Background Checks. Every staff person, every volunteer, should undergo a criminal background check to see if they have any history that would disqualify them from working with children. At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), I led the way on this by being the first one, many years ago, to submit to a background check. We do not do this simply at the start of employment or volunteering, but regularly repeat the check on everyone to ensure it is current. Granted, this only flags those with a criminal record, but that’s obviously still important to identify. Along with the background check there should be a volunteer application that lists previous volunteer experience and work information so that you can call for references.
2. Volunteer Orientation. If your church has policies and procedures, your volunteers must be trained on how to follow them. The training should also cover what things to watch out for in terms of predators—how to “see it, say it”. While an extensive manual is provided at Meck, safety issues related to children are most highlighted. But that’s not all. As our children’s director once described it to me, a good volunteer orientation not only trains, but acts as an interview to flag any potential concerns with someone serving with children.
3. Differing Roles for Men and Women. Let’s be candid—we want men serving in children’s ministry, but most sexual predators are men. At Meck, we’ve decided that only female volunteers may change a diaper or accompany children to the bathroom. This not only protects children from someone who is actively trying to do harm, but also protects innocent male volunteers from being placed in a vulnerable situation that could lead to a false accusation. And about bathrooms: when a woman takes a child to the bathroom, she is never to enter. She waits outside until the child is finished. If the child needs assistance, female volunteers leave the door partially open while they attend to the child.
4. Never Alone. There should be a number of policies and procedures in place to ensure a child’s safety, but there is one that should be at the top of every church’s list: no child or children will be left alone with a single volunteer. Period. At Meck, we use the two-person rule: two volunteers must be in a classroom or with a child at all times.
5. Built-In Architectural Safety. If and when you ever build a children’s ministry space, do it with safety in mind. At Meck, when we built our new children’s ministry wing at our North Charlotte campus, we made sure every classroom had two-way windows so that parents could be in the hallway and look into their child’s class without their child being distracted by seeing them. We put bathrooms into every room so that no volunteer had to exit the room with a child to use one. We installed dutch doors so that the top half could be opened while having the bottom half secured. We also designed the layout so that it was reserved for children’s ministry alone; in other words, only those with registered children may enter the area.
6. Volunteer-Child Ratio. There should be enough volunteers to effectively care for the number of children in any given room. This ratio should be established on the front end, so there is no question as to when to “close” a classroom to additional children. Too few volunteers not only leads to chaos, but also vulnerable situations due to distraction.
7. Security Personnel. At Meck, in addition to having volunteer security teams that are on constant patrol, we also enlist off-duty police officers – both in uniform and in plain-clothes – to be active and alert during all services.
This is not all that a church can do, but it’s the least a church should do.
To let the children come.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.