COMMENTARY | Darlene Leatherwood
No parent wants to consider that their young child’s safety might have been compromised. Yet, that’s just where I found myself in the early 1990’s. Thankfully, after carefully discerning all the facts, it became clear that my own child was safe – perfectly free from harm. But the experience prodded me to consider safety standards at our church, First Baptist O’Fallon, where I served as a part-time staff member responsible for preschoolers and children. I talked with our senior pastor, and he and I began to gather information and research ways we could make our church safe for children.
We presented a plan to our church council, which included members of our deacon body, key ministry leaders, and Sunday school teachers. As you might imagine, the meeting was long with lots of opinion sharing. (Remember, screening workers was a fairly new concept in the early 1990’s.) After several meetings and a few Q&A sessions, our leadership core adopted a clearly defined Child Protection Policy:
- Anyone volunteering in any ministry within the church would be required to complete a volunteer screening application providing personal history and references.
- A church staff member would contact the volunteer, gather reference information, and then interview him or her before placing the person in ministry.
- Volunteer screening forms would be kept in a locked file with minimal access for confidentiality.
- At least two volunteers would be present at all times, as well as a walk-around supervisor.
Many of our volunteers readily understood the need for such a policy and were quick to comply. However, some long-time volunteers struggled with the need to screen everyone. After all, they had a proven track record! Providing all this information and references seemed invasive.
Our staff agreed that anyone struggling with the policy would receive a home visit and personal explanation. First Baptist O’Fallon has a burning goal – to reach new people for Christ. By reminding these long-term volunteers that we were preparing for new families, new workers, and new ministry opportunities, they became more open to the policy. We asked these volunteers to pave the way for the future volunteers. And, reassuring new parents that First Baptist cared deeply about safety by addressing cultural needs helped FBC be more effective at ministry.
Over the years, we’ve continued to refine our Child Protection Policies. Volunteers now agree to a criminal background check. All references are checked, the criminal check is completed, and training is provided before volunteers are placed with a seasoned volunteer in ministry. Walk-around supervision is firmly in place for all ministries. The building contains windows that provide a clear classroom view, and rooms are equipped with interior deadbolt locks to provide extra protection for children.
Today’s children are subject to greater physical, emotional, and sexual threats than ever before, and most children express some insecurity in these areas. Parents are certainly aware of increased threats. Make your church a safe haven for families and children! Develop Child Protection Policies that fits your unique setting.
Dr. Darlene Leatherwood directs KidsLife at First Baptist Church, O’Fallon, Ill.