It’s a common scenario in houses of worship:
Who’s in charge of the property committee? “Our elder, Joe, heads that up.”
What about the finance committee? “Yes, Susan is our accountant and oversees the finances.”
And the sexual abuse prevention plan? “Well, our children and student ministry leaders do the background checks, interviews and reference checks.”
Ok, great — but who’s your lead? Who’s the person taking ownership of the whole plan?
It’s true that your property, finances and children are all exposures, and proper risk management is essential to each. However, a property can be rebuilt, and a financial misstep might be attributed to one corrupt individual who can be replaced. A sexual abuse scandal has lifelong repercussions for everyone involved.
To make sure your church is doing all it can to prevent sexual abuse, be sure to equip ministry leaders with all the proper screening tools:
• Written application
• Criminal background check
• Employment and/or volunteer history with signed release
As you provide these resources, ask yourself:
• Who’s taking ownership that these are completed, in full, before any volunteer or employee in children or student ministry can start?
• Have the ministry leaders been trained in noting signs of high-risk indicators that can appear during the screening process?
If not, here are some “red flags” they should watch out for in a potential volunteer:
• Abrupt relocation or vague employment history
• Pattern of working with a specific age and/or gender of children
• Poor peer relationships
• Obvious kid-related activities or possessions
• Unrealistic view of children (for example, as “pure, clean and innocent”)
Who is taking lead on following up on red flags that might pop up during the review of the criminal background check for offenses past convictions of sexual assault/abuse?
Here again, red flags are critical to spot and include:
• Providing alcohol/tobacco/pornography to a Minor
• Contributing to delinquency of a Minor
• Assault (non-sexual)
• Disorderly conduct
In a perfect world …
So, we give ministry leaders the tools. We train them on high-risk indicators and red flags on past convictions. Then we hope that nothing happens, and that everyone passes and can join our ministry right away? Especially the people we’ve known forever?
Not so fast.
Where are the checks and balances? Who’s overseeing the process and being impartial with the results, even if it’s a “friend” of the church?
Your sexual abuse prevention lead must:
• Confirm the consistency of the process. Same way, every time.
• Confirm the follow through on the results. Same way, every time.
• Be objective and remove friendships and relationships with existing staff when evaluating potential new staff/volunteers
I recently had a conversation with a former youth pastor at a church that did have a sexual abuse prevention lead — an executive pastor — but that wouldn’t allow the youth pastor to bring on a volunteer with a red flag. For the youth pastor’s part, he felt there was a good argument to be made to clear the individual to volunteer. He also accused the executive pastor of being hypocritical for ignoring the interview red flags of two other staff who were hired and then went on to commit inappropriate behavior.
See any consistency issues, here?
So, who is your sexual abuse prevention lead?
Make it a position of ownership and commitment. A position that won’t be swayed by staff, won’t be swayed by friendships, and won’t be swayed away from staying the course of consistency of action. It’s too important to the kids in your care.
Finally, I’d like to offer a small piece of advice when you’re on the fence about a particular volunteer or staff person. In my hiring practices, I like to use a phrase that’s common in business but cleaned up for this publication: If it’s not a heck yeah, then it’s a no.
Travis Tjepkema has been a leader in the California/Nevada church insurance space for more than 25 years. He has provided risk management guidance to thousands of churches in his career via live presentation, webinars and written articles.