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Protect the most precious members of your congregation

Safety measures for children’s ministries have come a long way but changes are still needed.

By Raj Dayal

Jim Wideman has been involved with children’s ministries for more than 30 years. Wideman has also been at one time or another in charge of large events, ministry consulting and leadership training for several churches. His most recent position before becoming a full-time children’s ministry and church growth consultant (jimwideman.com) last May was as the children’s ministry director at Church On the Move, Tulsa, OK, where he served for 17 years.

Wideman is the author of several books on children’s ministries, leadership and families including Children’s Ministry Volunteers That Stick (Group Publishing, 2004). Church Executive spoke with Wideman about the importance of having safe and secure children’s ministries and nurseries and how programs have changed.

How do you assess the efficiency and safety of a church’s children’s ministry and nursery program?

I visit a church and look to see if I can find the nursery and children’s rooms. After finding them I note what the “customer service” is like — how parents and children are being treated. This is an important issue as I take a fly on the wall approach to finding out how the program is run and what safety measures have been taken.

Security is essential in these ministries. As ministry leaders we are welcoming precious children into the body of Christ. We have a responsibility to them and their parents to make sure they are safe. The key to longevity in anything is raising up the next generation. Children are just as important to the body of Christ as any gray-haired saint.

How have children’s ministries changed over the last 30 years and have they become better or worse?

Overall, the changes have been great. There used to be a time when parents just walked up and handed someone their babies. Parents didn’t know anything about the workers’ training, process or background.

Conversely, there weren’t any real checks and balances on who the babies were. It was almost as if workers just hoped that they gave the right baby to the right parents. There wasn’t much accountability on either end.

If you were to tell me when I was in Bible college that we would be doing background checks, social security verifications and taking random drug tests of employees and volunteers someday, I never would’ve believed you. Things have necessarily changed for the better.

Why are children’s ministries and nurseries particularly vulnerable to threats?

Part of the reason is that no one is more trusting than church leaders. Churches, no matter the size, are always in need of more workers and volunteers — especially for children’s ministries and nurseries. The common excuse many church leaders hear and accept from potential children’s workers is: “I served at church (A) or (B).”

Oftentimes, churches don’t even call to see if this person attended the church in question, or if they did attend the church, leaders don’t ask if the person was a blessing or a curse. Sometimes our need for workers can override our discernment and our wisdom.

Background screening services of employees and volunteers is really the first line of defense. I recommend that ministry leaders look for services that include liability insurance, such as Accufax, Tulsa, OK. Therefore, if there’s a problem it won’t fall back on the church for not doing all it could to prevent the incident. When I went to Bible college more than 30 years ago I don’t think I even heard the word liability used in a sentence.

In what ways have children’s ministries become safer and more effective?

In addition to employee and volunteer background screening there are many check-in and parent pager systems now being used by churches.

The systems that churches have in place take better care of children. Also, there is more awareness of children who have special needs or particular allergies. Every child has specific needs and now ministry leaders and volunteers are able to serve them and their parents.

There are some churches that are even using biometric technology — a parent places a fingerprint on the device for recognition. This can also include access to the child’s identity and information.

Another major advance is that many of the newer check-in systems have checklist questions built into the software. Just a few years ago I could count the safety and check-in software companies on one hand, now there’re dozens of companies.

What types of safety and security should children’s ministry leaders keep in mind?

There are different degrees of security. It all starts with accountability. Yes, there are many people out there who want to do harm to children. However, these people are not the only threat to children on church property. Children’s  ministries need to be mindful of things as simple as making sure children can’t wander off and get lost.

Security is also about assessing the equipment a church uses in children’s ministries. Is the equipment in good shape? What about the safety of equipment and toys — are there any sharp edges or choking hazards?

Even the way children’s areas are cleaned and maintained can make a big difference towards securing a church. It’s important to make sure screws are tightened, furniture is assembled properly and toys are sanitized. A safe environment is also a germ-free one. Safety can mean many different things, not just the extreme.

What are some areas concerning child safety do you feel churches still need to improve?

Churches should be more diligent about incident reports. There needs to be set procedures and forms to fill out. Parents must be informed about any incident as soon as possible. Church workers have to understand that it is their duty to watch the children as carefully as their parents would.

Church leaders should not let the costs keep them from checking backgrounds of workers and volunteers. An individual background check is a lot cheaper than a lawsuit and more importantly, they can prevent dangers facing the members of the church.

What advice do you have for churches that are now restructuring children’s ministries and nursery programs?

It is important to start with the end in mind. If a problem occurs and church leaders find themselves in court they will be asked what they did to prevent it from happening and whether or not they had any prior information.

The thing that blows me away is the number of pastors and church leaders that still do not conduct background checks because they think they know the person being placed in children’s ministry well enough. They say that this person has attended the church for a long time. The fact of the matter is church leaders can’t know everyone; they do not go home with each employee and volunteer. Leaders have a responsibility to the children and parents who make up their churches to take every precaution available to ensure their safety.

Pagers offer an extra layer of nursery security

More than ever it is imperative that church nurseries take every precaution to protect children in their care. One way is to add an extra layer of security by implementing an organized drop-off and pick-up procedure.

There are several procedures available but one of the most accepted is nursery pagers. Nursery pagers were introduced a few years ago and quickly gained popularity because of their affordability and ease of use. When a parent drops off their child they’re given a numbered pager. After the service, children are only released to parents carrying the correct pager. It’s that simple.

Besides security, the main purpose of a pager is to give the nursery the ability to page a parent instantly if a child is crying or ill. Before pagers, the nursery staff was forced to search for a parent themselves. Not only does this leave the nursery short-handed, it also disrupts the service while the staff member wanders around trying to locate the parent.

Since pagers vibrate or flash silently, they won’t disturb other worshippers like lighted displays and maintains a sense of privacy for the parent.

— Kevin Hosey for Long Range Systems Inc., Dallas, TX. [pager.net]

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