According to a recent survey conducted by Lifeway Research, 94 percent of Protestant responders believe that teens and children are protected from abuse within their congregation and 93 percent of responders believe that adults are protected from abuse within their congregation. In a twist, 32 percent believe more pastors have abused teens and children than have been reported. I wonder if this could be reflective of the sentiment that “It cannot happen here. …” Or, is this a part of a general fear that, as reports of abuse within other denominations surface, our beloved denomination also has its own horrific stories?
In either case, as ruling elders serving on the governing bodies of our congregations, we have the obligation and the ability to make changes that prevent or greatly reduce the chances of these unimaginable outcomes. The Book of Order now requires that all church councils implement child and youth protection policies to keep church events and communities safe for everyone. Section G-3.0106 states that “all councils shall adopt and implement a sexual misconduct policy and a child and youth protection policy” [PC(USA) Book of Order].
It is true that policies without implementation are not worth the paper on which they are written. The policies, then, must be sustainable. Ideally, persons representing many aspects of the community will contribute to the process keeping the church space safe. This conversation may include aspects of the community covenant, adjustments to physical space to minimize the risk of abuse on church property, and the identification those responsible for receiving reports and responding to reports of abuse. It is helpful to have those who might hold power, including ruling elders active on session, as well as those who might be vulnerable participate in the conversation. A well-directed conversation might even include children who may be able to share ideas such as whether there are any parts of the building that are frightening to them. (Is there a dark corner in the basement kitchen pantry that is scary?).
Policies that have a commitment from, and are implemented by, all members of the congregation and include, at least, the following items seem to be the most helpful:
Prohibited Behavior: Establishing what behaviors we are trying to prohibit based on who we are and our needs for a policy.
Prevention Mechanisms: Actions that will be followed to reduce the risk of abuse (i.e. striving for two adults in a room with children at all times; background checks of all persons who come into contact with children, volunteers, and staff; physical space modification such as cameras in each room; lighting in all areas).
Reporting: Determining those persons who should receive reports, making all adults aware of their responsibility under state law to report any allegations of child abuse to the secular authorities as well as church leaders, and defining how various reporting of possible abuse or misconduct scenarios may be handled (i.e. if a youth tells another youth about an incident, are there any expectations? If a neighbor tells a member about actions of a ruling elder, who should the member talk with?).
Response: Preparing for responses from the congregation and its leaders in the case of an abuse or misconduct report (How will the congregation respond? How will the session respond? How will the pastoral leadership respond? What is the mechanism for providing pastoral care as well as the mechanism for placing limits around the person accused?)
Review: Creating a process for evaluating whether the aspects of the policy are being implemented and are meeting the needs of the congregation, especially those who may be vulnerable.
As ruling elders, we covenant to watch over the people, provide for their worship, nurture, and service. We agree to share in government and discipline, serving in councils of the church. And we agree to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ in our ministry. Thank you for helping your community stay safe from abuse and misconduct.
Laurie Griffith is a ruling elder and serves as the associate director for constitutional interpretation in the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly.