Christy’s friend was discussing churches. During one discussion Christy gave her opinion on one of the churches she and her husband had visited a year or two earlier. “We visited there on a Wednesday night,” she said. “The service was OK, but what I really didn’t like was what happened with Thomas.” It seemed that her four-year-old son, Thomas, had been participating in an outdoor children’s class, but when it was over the children were just randomly dismissed to find their parents. Christy wasn’t impressed when Thomas found her on his own.
The church was relatively small, and Wednesday night visitors were rather few and far between. In the teacher’s defense, most of the parents probably didn’t think twice about the way dismissal was handled. They all knew each other well. But Christy wasn’t a member. She didn’t know everyone at the church, and she didn’t appreciate the casual nature of the childcare situation. It affected her enough that her family didn’t visit there again for a very long time, and she shared her negative feelings with a friend.
Years ago, no one would have considered a need for safety policies in a church. After all, church was the epitome of safety. It was a refuge, a sacred place of security and peace. Unfortunately, that has all changed.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 2,000 children are reported missing in the United States each day. Of those children, about 58,000 are abducted by nonfamily members. Family members abduct two hundred thousand. Those are scary statistics, and they are sobering for all of us. The church can no longer claim immunity.
Churches now have to consider parental visitation issues and custody battles along with the very real danger of sexual predators preying on their youngest flocks. Churches have a legal and a moral responsibility to provide a safe space for our children, but doing so is not as simple as it used to be. No church is immune to the difficulties, but this is one issue where one size does not fit all. Obviously, the security measures at a mega church will be very different from those at a small, rural church. While each church will need to tailor the specifics of a security system, there are some general “tips” to keep in mind.
Plan for Safety
For most churches, safety issues are a big job to tackle. It helps to have a committee or group of individuals who are willing to step up and develop policies and procedures for a variety of situations, especially for signing children in and out of class.
Set up a table in the parking lot. Man a booth at the door. Just make sure that each child is signed in and out by a parent or guardian. Every child should have an information sheet that clearly identifies the child’s name, parents or caregivers, contact information, emergency information, allergy information and who can and cannot leave with the child. This is important not only to protect a child from leaving with the wrong person but also so that the right people can be contacted in the event of an accident or medical emergency.
Gone are the days when parents could randomly drop off their children at the front door for VBS or church activities. Today, that option is simply not safe. In regards to managing pick-ups, there are various security measures that can be put into place depending on the size of your church, financial resources, and the number of children you serve. The following are a few options:
- Similar to a school system, caregivers give written permission for who can pick up their children. Caregivers sign the children in and out while a church volunteer checks identification to make sure that each individual leaving with a child is approved.
- Upon entering the class, a child is given a random number tag to wear. The person bringing the child takes a matching number card. The child will only be able to leave with a person presenting the matching number card. In the event that a caregiver is needed during the worship service, a message with the child’s number can be displayed on the overhead in the worship center asking the parent of child number _________ to come to Room _________.
- A simple nametag pin or necklace is created individually for each child as he or she is admitted to class. The names of individuals permitted to take the child are written on the back.
- Computer programs are also available to help churches keep track of security information and measures. Some have the capability to produce individual barcode bracelets for each child. The parent would be given a card with a matching barcode that would need to be produced upon checking the child out of class.
Once plans have been made and policies have been instituted, it’s necessary to prepare the volunteers. A plan is only going to work if people put it into practice. If a church wants to guarantee the safety of their children, they will first start with the volunteers.
- Although sometimes controversial, some churches have begun to ask their members to fill out applications and go through an interview process before volunteering in the children’s ministry. Some even require background checks.
- Make training mandatory. A volunteer cannot be expected to learn the system in the span of five minutes before children start to arrive. Have periodic training days to keep everyone informed and on board of the policies. Most volunteers will readily cooperate once they understand the necessity of the rules and how the process works.
- Although it is sometimes difficult to mandate, experts recommend that there should always be two adults present with children. Teenage volunteers do not count as adults. Since bathroom situations can be hard to manage, some churches have separate volunteers who serve as bathroom monitors or hall “shepherds” helping escort children to and from the restrooms.
- Keep an open door policy. If possible, use gates and half doors or at least have a window in the door where the classroom can be easily viewed. Enlist a volunteer whose job is to do routine, non-disruptive, checks of the classes. The person can simply walk around silently monitoring the classroom situation, marking the time the class was visited and any disruptions or problems that might need to be noted. If any allegations arise, this kind of documentation comes in handy.
- Ask volunteer greeters to monitor who is entering the building, especially the children’s wing. Make sure to monitor all entrances and exits. While no one wants to promote an atmosphere of suspicion or distrust, it is wise to have someone meeting and directing strangers. For those who have a legitimate purpose, a greeter is a friendly, helpful presence. For those whose objectives may be less sincere, a greeter is a witness and unwelcome obstruction to easy access.
Persist in Following Through
Like any other new program, instituting safety checks within the church can be exciting in the beginning. It’s easy to get enthused about doing what’s right. Unfortunately, human nature dictates that the longer people do something, the more comfortable they become, and the more comfortable they become, the more lax they get. It takes a conscious effort to make sure safety policies are more than a list of unused rules.
- Churches have to ensure that the policies they institute stay relevant. For example, twenty years ago no one would have considered internet safety to be an issue. Today, church libraries, offices and gaming rooms have another area of danger to monitor. Examine all church activities and ministries with a discerning eye. Look for areas of danger and ways to protect participants.
- During regular committee meetings, ask members to list any safety concerns they feel need to be addressed. When meeting visitors or new members, ask them how they felt about the children’s safety practices. Place a suggestion box in the foyer of your church, or include a suggestion card in the Sunday bulletin. Take suggestions or criticisms seriously.
- Maintain periodic volunteer training sessions in which you review the safety practices that the church has in place and the reason why safety is so important. Make sure volunteers are thinking about safety issues.
No doubt there will still be some who think that churches simply don’t need to take such measures. But the statistics make it clear. If churches are to be safe spots for children, if parents and caregivers are to feel comfortable leaving their children in the care of church volunteers, if the church is going to continue to be a welcoming spot where young and old can learn about and experience the truth of Christ, then churches have to take safety seriously.