Jonathan W. Shishko
I am convinced that pastors and sessions often resort to saying things like, “we have always done it this way” neither because they think the status quo is sufficient nor because they think they are already doing things in the best way possible. The simple reality is that pastors and sessions are so loaded with pastoral work and church administration that changing the status quo feels like an insurmountable additional work load. Background checks on everybody that works with children? More policies, procedures, and protocols? Asking more of our already strained group of volunteers? Spending more time researching insurance policies, on the phone with insurance agents, and looking into the law of the land? Spending more money on insurance and legal counsel? Oh my. “We have always done things this way,” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
As a church-planting evangelist in New York City, I certainly understand this way of thinking. However, it was the status quo that led to a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Vatican Tells of 848 Priests Ousted in Decade.” In this article, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, a Vatican representative, said that 848 priests were dismissed between 2004 and 2013 and that another 2,572 members of the clergy had been disciplined for sexual abuse. Part of their discipline involved “putting children beyond their reach.”
One can only imagine how much work the Roman Catholic Church had to do to accomplish this feat. And yet, the feat itself is far beyond embarrassing. Instead of being proactive, the Catholic Church is now forced to publicize their reactiveness. Why? Because, for too long, the Catholic Church went with the status quo, the way they had always done things.
With this horrendous contribution to the ecclesiastical climate, as ordained servants, we must make the protection of Christ’s sheep, and especially the protection of Christ’s children, a top priority. Among all the other things going on, we must be proactive about child safety in the church.
The ethos of Christopher W. Shishko’s article “Volunteers and your Church: Avoiding Legal Pitfalls” is that proactively doing something is far better than doing nothing. Simply continuing with the status quo can be negligence. Assessing the system in place and working to improve upon it is proactive due diligence. I am writing to say that many of the ideas in the aforementioned article are not only easy to investigate, but also easy to implement.
At Reformation Presbyterian Church, where I am an evangelist, our proactive due diligence in regards to child safety began at an overseeing session meeting. As is our practice, we discussed the church’s financial situation. As one item pertaining to the finances, we discussed the amount we were paying for liability insurance. We collectively decided that, due to the church’s current size, we absolutely needed to pay for higher coverage. This led to interaction with our insurance company. This interaction was tremendously informative and helpful on many levels. Our insurance company made one thing very clear: we could continue without running background checks on the volunteers who worked with children, but we would pay a lot more money for a lot less coverage—all while continuing to set ourselves up for the possibility of a terrible lawsuit.
Our course of action became very clear. We decided that no matter how difficult it would be, we would run background checks on everyone at the church who would ever be working with the children. At the time, this was a tremendously daunting task for two reasons. The first reason was the administrative and financial task before us. How could we afford, run, and maintain background checks on the twenty-four nursery workers, Sunday school teachers, and other sitters who regularly contributed at Reformation? The second reason was the public side to all this. Volunteers, by definition, give their time and abilities to a certain task. As a church plant, we are not only grateful for this, but we are absolutely dependent upon it! How would the congregation (one third of which serve as volunteers in working with the children) receive this new requirement?
Thankfully, the angst and anxiety is always greatest in the planning stage. Soon after we committed to making this change, we discovered that there are fantastic services that address this particular issue. We decided to go with protectmyministry.com. The cost is minimal and the service is paperless. All we had to do was make a list of Reformation’s active volunteers, and ask those volunteers to fill out a simple consent form. Before distributing the consent forms, we made it the official Reformation policy: before anyone worked with children at Reformation, he or she needed to be a church member who had consented to a background check.
The next step was informing the congregation and distributing the consent forms. As a session, we were a bit nervous about this step. We really didn’t know how the congregation would receive the new policy. We held a congregational meeting, and simply summarized our thinking on the subject to the congregation. Fully expecting at least some objection, we were very pleasantly surprised by a congregation that was fully on board with the new procedure! The responses we did get were various comments about how thankful they were to see the church proactively, tangibly, and reasonably addressing the issue of child safety. The congregation appreciated that we were proactively performing due diligence.
Since that meeting, things have been relatively easy. Some people were initially hesitant to give the information necessary to run the background check. That objection is understandable and easily overcome by reminding people that they do not have to volunteer, but that, if they do, we must run a background check for them, in order to provide the safest possible environment for our children. This explanation overcame all objections. Right now, we have a robust and wonderful team of twenty-four active volunteers. Their background checks have all been run and are currently on file.
In order to continue improving upon the status quo, we have not stopped thinking about child safety. To address the issue of volunteers and kids needing to use the bathroom, we are going to work with our volunteers to understand that the nursery is really for kids under the age of two. They are usually not potty-trained, which means that taking kids to the bathroom is not a very likely event. We will probably work to make a policy that kids who are potty-trained are not permitted in the nursery. Some exceptions to this rule may be made; but when they are, and a child needs to use the bathroom, their parents will be retrieved to take their own children to the bathroom.
We have a robust Kidz Club at Reformation (meetup.com/Kidz-Club). Kidz Club events are held monthly, and are focused on kids ages two to twelve. In order to provide safety at these events, we insist that at least one parent or care-taker attend along with the Kidz Club member. In addition, we host all these events in public places (zoos, bowling alleys, museums, etc., instead of in private residences). No one is allowed to come and simply drop their kids off. The parents or care-takers must stay. While this may sound stern and uninviting, it is easily communicated in a caring and gracious way. Here is the way we put it on the back of every Kidz Club invite card: “In order to build a safe community, Kidz Club events are never ‘drop off your kids and leave.’ They are always ‘come and stay,’ so parents, volunteers, and other guests are serving and fellowshipping with one another while the kids are also there, enjoying the time organized for them.”
In addition to attorneys and insurance agents, there are other great resources to learn from. Looking forward, we intend to glean from other organizations that face some of the same safety concerns that we do. Teachers, day care professionals, other kid-based ministries, and especially, other churches, can all serve as terrific places to learn what does and does not work. Ask around. See what other organizations use. Think outside the box. Ask questions. Are there computer programs we should use to monitor the kids and the supervisors? Is there a place for audio/visual surveillance? What policies could we easily implement that would immediately reduce risk?
If you don’t have time, appoint someone within the congregation to research the issue and counsel the session. Just don’t fall into the trap of setting yourself and the church up for disaster, by, for one reason or another, contenting yourself with the status quo by saying, “We have always done it this way.” “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3). Let’s do what we can to protect that wonderful God-given heritage!
 Nick Cummings-Bruce, ”Vatican Tells of 848 Priests Ousted in Decade,” New York Times, May 6, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/07/world/europe/vatican-tells-of-848-priests-ousted-in-last-decade.html.
Jonathan W. Shishko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the organizing pastor of Reformation Presbyterian Church in Fresh Meadows, New York. Ordained Servant Online, June 2014.