“how are the children?”

How are the Children?In African cultures a common greeting between people from a tribe not their own would be “How are the children?” The idea behind that gesture is that if the children are doing well then the village/tribe is reflective of that wellness. We do similar as you meet an old friend or extended family member they, or you, will often say “How are the kids?” That question means something deeper within ourselves than we acknowledge.

With the events of last weeks Penn State sexual abuse and cover up scandal this question circles my brain and sadly, I cannot give a really good answer to it. With the history of the Catholic church abuse scandal always a possible topic of discussion for the last 15 years, to the weekly abuse by our very own tribe members we call ‘Youth Ministers’ our children are under some serious dangers.

One might say that is an over reaction.. possibly.. but as these are anecdotal incidents we’d be silly to assume they are isolated.

I spent my morning reading the Penn State Grand Jury testimony before I felt I could start to write this. One reason was my own curiosity. I spent some of my young adult & teenage years at Penn State with my sister and best friends graduating from there. It’s a great school and a cool place to be. I loved the tradition of “JoPa” as harkens back to a day of stability and relationships over promotions and successes. So, in a way, I needed to know.. Second reason, I am not a victim of abuse. I have reported people to DHS/DCS in my days of ministry and given witness accounts before, but I felt I needed to know a bit more about what it means to be a victim.

What I read in that report was a, quite disgusting, but mostly alarming was the ability to repeat behaviors that compromised the innocence of children. Over and over again there was the same story from victim to victim and I couldn’t help but wonder, how could this continually happen? It happened, in this case, as seems to be the case with the Catholic church because someone in a position of authority leveraged their trust given to them by others into aggregous acts against some of the most vulnerable of God’s Kingdom.

How then, can we as a church community, a people called “Christian” protect those who are most vulnerable in the Kingdom?

Our church, often throws out the needs for a Safe Sanctuaries policy, based off the works of Joy Melton and a book series by that name. I am not so concerned about you trying to adopt and implementing a policy today, but I do hope you take some time to look over the practices of introducing your teenagers and adults together that minimizes the opportunities for a an isolated or predator behavior to take place.

So what can you do this week with all of this?

1. Assess your policies or procedures that are presently the norm of your ministry.
2. Put into practice new policies as needed
3. Send out correspondence to your families, acknowledge what is happening in the news, don’t be afraid of it, and let them know what elements are there to protect their children.
What are things to assess?
  • Do you have background checks on your people?
  • Do you have a second adult rule for all ministry gatherings?
  • Is there a timeframe that people have to be around the church to become involved with youth?
  • Does someone, or you, interview each youth minister with your team?
  • Is there a reference check?
  • Are there yearly review processes?
  • Is there a response process if a child told you, or another adult, of something indecent that might have occurred?
  • Is there a care process for an after incident?
Having some policies in place can help you in the implementing process of protecting those in the ministry, youth community and outer community. It will also help give some clear direction in an otherwise emotional set of circumstances.
How do you go about creating or starting policies? If you are starting from scratch or need to see what others do you can do what we call an “invisible search” that will help you find files that are posted on servers, but not necessarily on the web. Check out this “safe sanctuaries” search. Download documents as you feel the need and see what others are doing and wordings (change the search wordings if you like).
Train up your people on the new procedures. Start practicing the new safety measures as soon as feasible (ie. two adult rule is easy, background checks take time and money). When you find push back, just assure folks, this isn’t a witch hunt, just something to assure each other and the families that we are conducting our ministries with the best safety practices we can. If the case of Penn State reflects anything, the adage of “we’ve known them forever” is no excuse for putting around protection measures for the ministry community.
Then share with the masses. This might be an email with the every policy/procedure that you’ve implemented this week, it could be a reassurance that you have safe measures in place already and people can trust the ministry, it could be just an acknowledgement of “This has happened and is tragic, we seek to be a safe place for your child to be a participant in the ministries of the church. If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s safety and what we do to ensure that as best we can, please contact us.”
NOTE: the implementation of the a Safe Sanctuaries policy doesn’t eliminate all possibilities of something happening in ministry, but it does greatly diminish the probability. From my personal experience, we had a young adult who’s first act that would red flag him was an assault on a child. We had some implied policies in place, but just finished approving our policies and background checking everyone. What was helpful for us was that we had approached the subject and our people were prepared, as best as could, for such an event. Certainly our reactions were not without various emotions, but our people held together as best as one might imagine for such a thing to happen to a church body.


Gavin Richardson is Digital Community Builder for YouthWorker Movement and the Short One at YouthWorker Circuit. He has been in youth work for almost two decades now, has been a writer and consultant on numerous internet and published projects for the church. He’s often a speaker around the country on church communications and community building. His current projects are working on developing online Youth Disciple Groups and finishing a new book “Sticky Sheep.” He is the part time youth guy at Good Shepherd UMC in Hendersonville, TN. If you ask, he will say that he is a “misfit” of the church. He lives in Nashville with his wife Erin, son Brooks and dog Crimson. You can connect with Gavin (and he’s totally cool with that) through http://about.me/gavoweb.

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