What is a "Safe Congregation Policy?"

Orange and white traffic cone in the middle of a street

Back in the 1990s, the UUA published a workbook called Creating Safe Congregations: Toward an Ethic of Right Relations. That book, now out of print, covered many areas of safety including professional ethics and misconduct prevention, violence and abuse prevention, and relational healing. Since then, many of our congregations have referred to their policies and practices in these areas as “a Safe Congregation policy.”

It sounds like it’s one thing, but it’s never been one thing. A “Safe Congregation Policy” is actually a collection of safety policies and practices. Usually the congregation has implemented these policies and practices in a variety of areas of congregational life, and in many different eras. You might have a personnel policy your board adopted in 2018 and a policy on driving youth to UU events that your religious educator updated in 2022. Perhaps your practice of two unrelated adults being present in children's programs at all times has been in place since 1996, and you don’t even know where it’s written down. This is normal!

At the same time, some congregational leaders have told me, “we don’t have a Safe Congregation policy.” And I tell them I bet they have a lot more of one than they know—and they can draw on a lot of “best practices” to fill in the rest. As you read about the components of a comprehensive Safe Congregation policy, you will likely recognize some things your congregation has in place already as well as some areas that need refinement. In each area I offer links to online resources to help you get what you need.

What Are the Parts of a “Safe Congregation Policy?”

Personnel Policies on Ministerial and Staff Conduct

A safer congregation needs policies to guide their professionals in appropriate conduct, and policies and practices that promote the safety of all who might be vulnerable to inappropriate conduct by those professionals. Personnel policies, staff/minister covenants, and clear guidance on safer practices are essential. Ministers and staff need to know that the congregation holds them accountable to particular expectations for the ethical performance of their duties. Additionally, policies can also require ministers and staff to stay current with training in safety, boundaries, abuse prevention, and state-mandated reporting requirements.

Destructive Behavior Policies

What does congregational leadership do when someone in our congregation is engaging in bullying, harassment, physical violence, hate speech, or other forms of destructive behavior toward others? In such situations, some congregations have found that they weren’t prepared—that their bylaws and existing policies did not offer a process for removing or suspending the participation of someone who was actively harming others. A destructive behavior policy spells out what the leaders of a congregation can do when destructive behavior emerges. Additionally, congregations can set specific, strict boundaries on the participation of people with a history of destructive behavior through a limited access agreement or an individualized behavioral contract. Developing some of these documents as samples helps future leaders be able to address a crisis more quickly and effectively.

Child and Youth Safety Policies and Practices

Children and youth are among the most vulnerable people in a congregation, with the potential to experience harm from other children and from adults. Our Becoming a Safer Congregation handbook and our youth safety guidelines offer guidance for practices and policies to protect young people from harm at the congregation, and to give them resources to address harm they may be experiencing beyond the congregation.

Financial Controls and Conflict of Interest Avoidance Practices

Sometimes congregations can inadvertently expose their ushers, board, staff, or minister to accusations of wrongdoing by not having appropriate transparency and accountability in their handling of the congregation’s money. Without policies and practices to create transparency and accountability, a congregation can be harmed by financial mismanagement ranging from mere sloppiness to embezzlement. The Financial Safety section of our Becoming a Safer Congregation guide offers resources.

Established Procedures for Emergencies and Crises

Insurance companies often require that congregations have emergency evacuation plans and ways of addressing fires, floods, and disasters. These are likely already among your policies. Additionally, congregations are advised to develop plans for dealing with hostile and/or violent intruders. Our Building Security webpage can point you toward training, planning, and prevention resources.

General Building Safety and Security

You need to have some policies and practices for keeping people in your building safe during day-to-day operations. Often, the building and grounds committee partner with staff to engage in this work. Are their practices they regularly engage in that are documented? Are there policies they need to abide by? Our Building Security page includes guidance for minimizing hazards on a congregation’s property.

The common thread? Safe Congregation policies and practices are in place to protect the vulnerable—which, in reality, comes down to all of us—from emotional and physical harm.

If you’re in the position of being asked to gather these policies and practices into one Safe Congregation document it may feel like a complicated request! But I assure you that it will be worthwhile. Your work will help you and other leaders recognize exactly what you are already doing to keep people safe, and recognize areas where you need to research and document how to be safer. If you need support in this process, or you’re starting from scratch, don’t hesitate to reach out to your UUA regional Safe Congregations specialist. We’re here to help!