Social media risk — a spot check for the church?

By Peter A. Persuitti

SAFETY ICONRecently, I convened a panel of experts for a conversation about where the Church stands relative to capitalizing on the remarkable evangelization opportunity of social media. The key questions:
• Are churches actually embracing
social media?
• If so, how are they doing managing the risks?
• How can churches establish boundaries as they row in these unchartered waters?

Crispin Ketelhut has extensive experience managing church safe environments and is the Associate Director of the VIRTUS Protecting God’s Children Program. She brings a wealth of experience to the table regarding the methodology of systems as key to the foundation of risk management and protecting children.
Paul Timm, president of Reta Security, is a foremost expert on crisis management. He is often consulted when there is a breach of security at schools and churches.
Miles Shepp is a broker who leads Impac, an insurance program for mega-vision ministries. The program makes sure policies and procedures for risk management are complemented with the right coverages.

SAFETY STRATS ARTQ: Are churches using social media?
Ketelhut, Timm and Shepp agree that churches are embracing all forms of social media; few are opting not to go there.
Timm is adamant about social media being core to the ministry. Thus, he says, it should be embraced and will be good for Kingdom-building.
“Social media might be the one way to bring back youth to the Church,” he says — and of course, technology has a lot of power as a mass notification resource for emergencies and for communicating key information. “It puts the Church back in the center of the town square as an informer!”
For his part, Shepp says he has witnessed more and more churches enhancing their websites. To this end, many church leaders are asking questions related to, Is the church protected?
However, if these experts were to rate the systems in place at churches overall, most congregations would not receive a passing grade. Even so, Ketelhut, Timm and Shepp agreed that a breach of failure is the best possible resource for all of us.
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel of what needs to be in place,” Timm explains. “These churches have been on their knees and forced to put in place the systems necessary to deal with this ‘tidal wave.’”

Q: What are the vital components of a viable system?  
• Policies and practices
• Education and training
• Communication
• Transparency and accountability
• Monitoring systems
• Checks and balances

Over the past 10 years involving serious violations of boundaries in churches, we have learned a great deal. All three experts agree there are lessons inherent to these violations that can apply to churches’ social media exposure, as well.
For example, we now know that we must treat children and adults differently in the communication process. “Teach the children, yes; but, we can’t put the main responsibility on the children,” Ketelhut explains.
Ketelhut continues: “With adults, the days of saying ‘Don’t’ are over; how the message is delivered is important. Yet, adults — no matter what — have the responsibility and main role of protecting children. This is no longer about whether we trust the adult, but rather about adults as protectors of children. Adults represent their churches, and thus have greater trust, greater access and greater responsibility.”
Context and reality are two important concepts here, Ketelhut adds. “For example, while technology is great and social media connects people, churches must provide education, especially regarding the risks inherent to both.
“We then must take action — we screen, we monitor, we establish checks and balances, we watch for warning signs, we communicate if there is an issue,” she continues. “The opposite of these systems is chaos.”
To this point, Timm rhetorically asks: What is the remedy for chaos? The answer: education.
“We must set expectations for social media management,” he emphasizes. “And we won’t tolerate the 40+ age group ignoring social media. Ignorance is never the tool to combat issues.”
Churches want to grow, and all three experts say they believe this explosion of social media is a gift of stewardship. But, there is also a cost of discipleship — and they refuse to allow me to reduce the discussion to what one thing is most important in managing this risk.
Instead, they reinforce the importance of seeking out those who have been harmed. These churches will have model policies and practices in place as a result.
“In all of this, we want to allow youth to help lead the way,”
Timm emphasizes.

Q: How can church leaders get ready for a potential breach?
Is there a “fire drill”-type practice they can use? Not so much; all three experts agree that in many ways, social media use in the Church is akin to unchartered waters.
“Technology is like a tidal wave,” Shepp points out. “Education is the key. Follow the lessons to be learned, seek ways to reduce risk.
“We can never reduce the risk to zero, but what are we doing with the level of risk we have?” he concludes. “We need expertise and collaboration in place. Insurance is a piece of the pie.”

Peter A. Persuitti is managing director, Religious Practice, at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Chicago. Gallagher is a financial services firm specializing in insurance brokerage, benefits and retirement consulting, claims administration and advocacy, institutional investment and fiduciary services, alternative risk financing and program administration and risk management. As a dedicated Religious Practice, Gallagher works with more than 24,000 non-profits around the world.


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