Safe Sanctuaries?

I was supposed to write a post about Safe Sanctuaries last week. It was going to be informative and at the same time reveal some of the complexities inherent in creating, implementing, and policing the Safe Sanctuaries policies at the local church level. I got bogged down and stuck halfway between a rant and venting about issues that exist in my local context. I took three passes at the article and put it aside for a week to reset. As I continued to mull it over, I kept running into a single realization: the one consistent thing about Safe Sanctuaries from church to is that it’s different from church to church.

In my own church, our attention to Safe Sanctuaries has recently been renewed due to a sudden awareness that, well, nobody knew what or where our policy was. Or who had originally written it. But we were pretty sure that there had been one at one time. An outsider might view this as an incident isolated to our congregation. But the same thing happened at my last church. In that case, I did actually find the original policy—I was cleaning out the storage shed out by the softball field and under a wicker basket full of Polaroids of kids playing “chubby bunny” I found a dusty, plastic comb-bound copy of our policy, featuring a line drawing of the church before they’d added on the gym. I mean “Family Life Center.” I emerged from the shed like Hilkiah from the temple and turned it in to the office, where I was met with unhappy faces that apparently had been looking forward to scrapping the old one and starting over.

So here’s the thing about Safe Sanctuaries, in my experience. Most churches I’ve encountered are perpetually in some stage of fumbling through creating or reviving their policy. Churches that are doing it well usually seem to be doing so because “We all started taking it pretty seriously after [The Incident].” And everyone seems to do it differently, due to individually written policies from church to church and less than uniform expectations from conference to conference. So instead of writing about the how and what of Safe Sanctuaries, this week we’re throwing it to you, dear reader.

We’d love to see your answers to these questions:

What’s a nickel version of your churches policy? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

What are your conferences requirements for Safe Sanctuaries? What resources are available to you through your conference?

What body in your church is ultimately responsible for maintaining your policy?

How receptive are your leaders/youth/church-at-large to the requirements of the policy?

KEVIN ALTON :: youthworker :: musician :: friend
423.227.5466 :: twitter: elvisfreakshow ::


  1. This article caught my eye because the church I’m working with now is exactly in that “incident” stage of figuring out what our policy is. “Where is it?”, I ask, after 8 months of employment. No one knows. Lines are definitely blurred, especially as there has been NO one charged with implementing the policy and regular evaluation. *sigh* But alas, we ARE going to be working on it soon, so I have more clearly defined boundaries for our upcoming mission trip. And I will definitely check back in here regularly.

  2. I believe that we passed our initial policy in 1999 shortly after the Safe Sanctuaries book by Joy Thornburg Melton was published. We form a team that included the pastor, youth leaders and parents to develop our policy. We are not a large congregation and have an all volunteer youth program that at the time had an average of 15 youth and Thank God, we have never had an “incident”. I was part of that team and I assure you, it was not a simple task – especially 12 years ago when a “lock-in” meant everyone slept in one room!
    I believe the most important piece to our policy was to make sure that we always have a diligent Safe Sanctuaries coordinator managing the program. They are responsible for making sure our CORI’s are up to date, that new volunteers know the policy and sign a document, and that we hold our annual Safe Sanctuaries review. Everyone who works with children or youth in any capacity (VBS, driving, youth program, teaching etc…) needs to attend this review every 3rd year. During the review, we’ll also take time to discuss any updates or additions that may need to be made to the policy. We also had plaques made (and hung where visitors will see them) that indicate we are a Safe Sanctuaries congregation.

  3. We’ve tried to hide our policy too, but someone keeps finding it.

    Seriously, we do have one, and it is tweaked periodically (which may be its strength). We also have a different policy for youth than we do for children simply because of unique issues brought on by mission trip, retreats, etc.

    I have not found a lot of helpful Safe Sanctuaries resources out there. Everyone says we should have a policy, but everything seems to be short on details as to what should be in it. I attended a workshop where three different background check companies were mentioned with the instruction, “use the one you can afford.”

    Our Conference did lots of workshops several years ago on the topic, but now the attention to it seems to have waned. The youth Director (me) and the Children’s Director seem to be one ones charged with creating and implementing the policy. It has been received fairly well, but many believe we’re overkilling in a few areas.

  4. Well, we had the “incident” at our church which has put the ball in motion to “re-do” our policies. Our policies have been made available to everyone, and volunteers always signed the paperwork, even did background checks. However, that didn’t stop 2 youth volunteers – a boy (18) and girl (17) from deciding to leave VBS and have sex in the choir room. And the worst part about it, is that the girl claims it was not consensual. They had been attending our church for 8 years and were active members of the youth program.

    All this happened after myself, the Youth Director, went to several lengths to tighten up the policies and tried to get changes pushed through the Trustees/Council. The Staff-Parish Relations Committee is actually the body that should be changing and implementing the policies in the church, not the Youth Director.

    We are trying to develop policies that are active, not just on paper, but that protect the children from harm, as well as protect the volunteers from each other.

    You might tell the driver who complains about why they have to sign a form, or have another adult accompany them to drive and pick up children – it’s for their own good! Volunteers don’t seem to realize that policies are in place to protect them as well as to protect the children.

    In a nutshell, we subscribe to the following:

    – Two adults at all times, in sight or sound of the children. When two can not be present – an open door is needed, with a roaming volunteer.

    – Never use physical force to control a child, unless they are a danger to themselves or others.

    – Children or youth (under 18) are not allowed in the church unaccompanied by an adult, unless they are in a church activity and their parent/guardian has signed them into the activity.

  5. Our church policy of Safe Sanctuary involves a police check of every person working with children, youth and persons with disabilities. I work with the disabilities end of that spectrum. We are pro active and have developed student safety rules that are reviewed yearly, and safety rules for parents, and rules and Safe Sanctuary for all leaders. The plan also includes what to do if a parent drives drunk to pick up a student (We got legal advice on that.), and what to do in case of accident on an outing. No one minds all these rules because they are presented in a positive way. Safety in the number one issue for parents of students with disabilities.

    We also have emergency plans in place for all occasions. The plans are written, copied and placed in information notebooks as well as reviewed with leaders. The plan includes evacuation plans for separate emergencies. For persons not trained in emergencies, my pocket book QUICK LOOK FOR VOLUNTEER EMERGENCY RESPONDERS: A GUIDE TO AIDING PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES ( is a good beginning point for ushers and teachers dealing with youth and other ages, especially those who have mainstreamed youth.

    Once a year, the directors of our programs and leaders are required to attend Safe Sanctuary Training led by a certified individual.

    Scott, my website has sample plans and a copy of our rules.

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