For those of us who have been around churches for most our lives, the emphasis on Safe Ministries programs and screening may still seem somewhat of a new thing. For example, before 2003, most Sunday school volunteers were given little more than a class teaching program and a pat on the back.

Today, depending on your church or denomination, volunteers might be required to attend safe training courses, complete extensive questionnaires, provide referees and State “Working with Children” licences. Some will even need to get a full Police background check—just to offer a helping-hand in the kids program they’ve been a part of for years. The impact on church staff teams has been considerable too. Churches have begun to appoint compliance officers and safe ministry implementation supervisors because the administration load to oversee all these issues is so great.

Some volunteers will need to get a full Police background check—just to offer a helping-hand in the kids program they’ve been a part of for years.

While there have been various safety programs in place for a lot longer, most of these changes have happened in the space of 15 years or so. Why?

Not Just Churches

First, it’s worth noting that this recent emphasis is not limited to the church-world. The secular world has seen a similar proliferation of laws, guidelines and programs designed to safeguard vulnerable people. School teachers are now trained in child protection and abuse awareness—as are doctors, child-carers and sport coaches. The Australian Institute of Sport, for example, recently introduced a short online course for volunteers who coach, train and manage children’s sporting teams. Similarly Federal, State and Territory laws require any organisation that serves children—not just churches—to verify that workers and volunteers have been “cleared” to do so. Clearly, the recent church emphasis on safeguarding vulnerable people and screening volunteers is one part of an important cultural agenda.

However it would be naive to suggest the church doesn’t also have a unique reason to focus on safeguarding vulnerable people. Investigations such as the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have clearly shown that the wider church has experienced systemic failures; not only failing to properly reduce the risk of harm to vulnerable people, but also failing to properly respond to incidents where people have been harmed within church programs and communities. Now, we in the Christian Community must not only do now what we should have been doing, but to attempt to restore some of the trust we have lost. We should welcome these Safe Ministry programs and screening processes: they offer us a way to to distance ourselves from the mistakes of the past and say to the world, “We will not make the mistakes of the past. Never again will we allow people to be put at such risk. Never again will we try to cover-up the abuse done in our churches.”

Caring for the Vulnerable

But this is more than just a PR exercise. Our churches and denominations really do want to ensure people are treated properly. Caring for the vulnerable is an expression of our Christian faith and values. It’s a gospel-shaped desire to want to help the helpless and protect the weak.

Caring for the vulnerable is an expression of our Christian faith and values.

And it’s this desire to truly protect people that has led to all the various policies, training programs, questionnaires, checks, courses, forms and restrictions. All of these various things have sprung up as multi-layered attempts to ensure our people and churches are safe for everyone.

But it’s at this point of implementation that we hit some issues. In the well-meaning desire to stop any and all abuse, some churches have ended up pursuing every possible option, to the most extreme level. The idea seems to be that, if there’s some option out there that is more detailed or extreme, then it must be a better way to safeguard people. The more extreme the screening; the longer the training course—so the theory goes—the safer the community or church.

The result is that many church volunteers are required to undergo more screening and training than almost any other volunteer sector in Australia. If you want to go and help public-school children with their reading one-on-one, you’ll need little more than a State Government “Working with Vulnerable People” check, and a brief reading of the school’s WH&S policy. There are particular reasons for this level of screening, but it’s a helpful reminder of what might be perfectly appropriate … in certain circumstances.

Avoiding Overkill and the Bare Minimum

So how do we know what is an appropriate level of screening and training for various level of volunteers in our churches? How do we do more than the bare minimum, but also not fall into the trap of creating excessive or over-blown processes?

This is of course a matter of wisdom. And yet, we are not alone in making these decisions (perhaps just as well given the church’s blotted history). There already exist various guidelines for all organisations (such as the Human Rights Commission’s National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations). In addition to these guidelines, most churches now have insurance providers who have clear standards in this very area.

In our own church context we’ve found that the advice of our insurance company (Ansvar Insurance) has been thorough-going yet practical. They’ve helped us develop a system of screening our volunteer leaders that’s intense but also achievable. They’ve helped write online training courses for general church members as well as for volunteers and supervisors. And they’ve helped us work out how to embed all this in the culture of our church from the top down. We’ve gone along with this, because—while we hope for zero incidence of harm—we know we live in a sinful fallen world and want to be prepared. We need to be a church community that feels responsible for vulnerable people. We need the people of our community to know how to raise and report their concerns. We need to be sure that our church leaders and systems are committed to responding properly, responsibly and lovingly.

We’ve since developed this screening and training further with Ansvar and offered it as a tool for other churches to use, called www.SafeMinistryTraining.com.au. My hope is that it would be a great blessing for church communities, church leadership and church administrators.

Photo: bhardy, flickr