Getting Started: How Do We Create a Safer Congregation?

Where Do We Begin?

When it comes to developing a culture of safety, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some first steps:

  • Recognize the need for Safe Congregations policies and procedures: Too often in our congregations, we expect and hope that bad behavior and other safety matters will simply go away. But anyone who has been in community also knows that in order to create the safest possible environment, it is necessary to articulate the congregation’s values and intentions about its expectation of and from others. As well, Safe Congregations work incorporates other areas such as building safety, natural disaster response planning, financial oversight, and other areas. The first step is realizing this is important work for you congregation to undertake, and helping your members understand the nature of the work.
  • Develop leadership buy-in: This is the next step that needs to be accomplished. The leadership must be on board. If they are not, safety and health will compete against any of the other priorities of the day. As congregations build a culture of safety, organizational barriers, such as fear and lack of trust, are diminished. Most people place a high personal value on their own safety, and if you are sincere in the approach used, congregants will view your safety efforts as things that are truly being done for them. Remember, though: “safety” may feel different to every member of the congregation, and you will need to navigate this.
  • Continue cultivating buy-in: There needs to be buy-in among the board, key lay leaders and the staff. Spell out a compelling reason for safer congregations work to everyone. People have to understand why they are being asked to change what they normally do or focus on in this area of ministry. Safety must be viewed as everyone's responsibility
  • Identify key personnel: Choose good people to work on this effort. Recruiting the right people to develop safety plans is key. Create one or more committees of people who understand and value risk management. Include professionals in areas you intend to address, such as an accountant for financial issues or a builder for structural ones, or provide funding to consult with such professionals. Most importantly, put someone in charge who is invested with enough authority to make things happen. In larger congregations, a safety committee should be established. This group's purpose is to facilitate, support, and direct the safety culture change processes. To be effective, the group must have the authority to get things done. In smaller congregations, the oversight will likely be done by the governing body, and they should feel free to recruit others in the congregation to help with the work.

What Teams Will Be Responsible for the Work?

The Safer Congregations Committee

The Safer Congregations Committee is responsible for the overall oversight of the safety ministry and is accountable to the Board. With the Board, the Committee formulates the mission and vision of the safety ministry. It assesses the risks facing the congregation, establishes policies and procedures for the safety ministry, and works with the Board on safety and security policies and procedures for the congregation. The Committee may reach out to and consult with members and community partners for assistance in creating certain policies and procedures for the congregation.

This committee will offer a report at each annual meeting of the congregation. Policies will appear at least annually in the congregation newsletter, will be used as appropriate in training/orientation for leaders and teachers, and be included in new member packets.

The Safer Congregations Committee falls under the congregation's governing body (the Board). Its members are selected or approved by the Board. Members should include:

  • the religious educator or person responsible for ministry with children,
  • a member of the Board,
  • lay leaders with experience or expertise in law, emergency management, and,
  • someone who brings awareness and sensitivity to the particular needs of the elderly and persons with disabilities, and persons from historically (and currently) marginalized groups.

In smaller congregations, the Board and the Committee may be one and the same. In these instances, it becomes important to ensure that resource people outside the congregation are consulted for input on areas the Committee members can’t address themselves.

Safer Congregations Response Team

The role of a Safer Congregation Response Team is to offer confidential support, advice, and counsel with concern for the safety of all parties involved in any situations involving allegations of abuse. It is beneficial to form this team proactively, often during the policy creation stage, to allow them to be prepared in the event of abuse allegations within the congregation. The Safer Congregation Response Team has the following responsibilities:

  • Know about community resources for child abuse, treatment for sex offenders, and support groups for survivors.
  • Know about state laws regarding reporting.
  • Be a resource for people to share their concerns.
  • Evaluate applications for religious education teachers and youth group leaders as requested by the minister or professional religious educator.
  • Facilitate annual training for religious education staff and teachers on issues, policies, and procedures relevant to sexual/physical abuse.
  • Work with relevant committees to ensure that the sexual abuse prevention education sections of the Our Whole Lives curricula are offered at each age level.
  • Develop a process for timely and appropriate handling of allegations of possible abuse, and receive allegations of possible abuse.
  • If persons in the congregation need limits placed on their activities, such as members on probation for disruptive behavior or people who've been convicted of sex offenses and released, the team helps develop and enforce a Limited Access Agreement

All activities of the Team will be conducted in a confidential fashion and may only be disclosed when necessary and appropriate as determined by the Team. Records of incidents addressed and decisions made will be documented and treated as confidential information.

A Response Team is generally composed of

  • the minister, remembering that their role is primarily pastoral in nature,
  • the religious educator,
  • the president of the board and
  • three members of the congregation preferably with experience in abuse response or prevention.

Lay-led or smaller congregations may put together a three-person team. Gender balance should be given consideration in appointments. Some congregations have developed a panel of six to eight members of the congregation who can be called upon as needed to form a response team. Although some congregations form such a response team only after there has been an allegation, this is unlikely to provide the wisdom and continuity that is required.

Some Initial Tasks for the Committee and Teams

Conduct self-assessments/benchmarking. In order to get where you want to go, it is essential to know where you are starting from. You can use checklists for nearly every aspect of safety to measure the strengths and weaknesses of the safety culture. You will find several within this guide.

Identify risks. Church Mutual offers resources to help congregations in Recognizing liability risks (PDF) as well as Self Inspection Safety Checklists (PDF). Then, look at all the possible risks in those areas, asking yourself: “What's the worst thing that could happen?” In the children's area, you might ask if a non-custodial parent could kidnap a child or if the nursery could catch fire. Assess the probability of each risk and what you can do to reduce or eliminate it. Remember, it’s both about protecting your people, and your non-human assets and data.

Decide which area to focus on first. Trying to address every aspect of congregational safety and preparedness at once could be overwhelming and discouraging. With the goal of making our congregations a safer place, GuideOne Insurance suggests using the EFFECT framework to determine risk areas:

  • Emergency preparedness
  • Facility safety
  • Financial safeguards
  • Employee and volunteer safety
  • Children and youth safety
  • Transportation safeguards

To make it more manageable, break the process of developing safety policies into several “bite-size” steps. First, focus on the areas most central to your congregation and its ministry. For some congregations this might mean starting with children and youth safety, for others it might be facility safety. Once you have implemented policies and procedures in one area, it is often easier to build on that success and create policies in other areas as well.

Provide initial training for leadership and staff and key lay leaders. By training these people, you have a core group to draw on as resources. Training also gets key personnel on board with needed safety changes.

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