5 practices to help prevent sex abuse in your church

By Matt Henslee

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the LifeWay Pastors blog. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “But that won’t happen here,” I could’ve retired yesterday. There are times I think we pastors have the not-so-spiritual gift of turning into ostriches when something bad happens in the news.

Church shooting? Not in my town! Treasurer caught stealing? Not here! Youth pastor having sex with a student? That would never happen here!

Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, there have been 18 deadly church shootings. Many of us are well aware of the deadliest church shooting since it’s the most recent — the 26 people killed at First Baptist Sutherland Springs in Texas in 2017.

But that won’t happen here.

In my list of friends on Facebook, I know of four pastors whose treasurers were padding their wallets from the church’s bank account. “SBC Voices” even shared news of a treasurer allegedly embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But that won’t happen here.

However, this post isn’t about church shootings or embezzlement; it’s about sex abuse. It should’ve been on our radar before the Houston Chronicle’s article, “Abuse of Faith,” went live last week, but you know…

That won’t happen here.

Well, it can. This article offers five ways to help your church avoid being added to a growing list of churches that had their heads in the sand, thinking such a thing would never happen to them.

1. Background checks

Do them. Did you know the LifeWay OneSource program provides discounted prices on background checks for churches and religious organizations looking to protect their ministries?

For as little as $10, you can screen your staff, volunteers, treasurers, teachers, bus drivers, camp counselors, and more.

For me, the non-negotiable here is that every pastor or staff member and every person who’ll have access to babies, children, preteens, and teens must have a background check. But I also encourage you to consider running a background check on anyone who’ll serve as a leader in the church.

2. Due diligence

Let’s start with staff members. If you’re about to hire your next minister, by all means, check their references. Don’t be fooled by an advanced degree and vast experience. Take the time to walk that experience back.

Contact a potential hire’s previous churches and the schools they graduated from and you’ll learn if their resume is legit. But more importantly, you may save your church from a disaster you could have avoided.

3. Never alone

As a pastor of a normative-sized church, I completely understand how hard it is to get one volunteer for a class, let alone two. However, it’s worth the work.

I don’t counsel alone, nor do I think it’s wise for someone to be left alone with children.

This lessens the chance of something inappropriate happening. It also provides an added set of eyes on active children who require supervision.

4. Six months

I had a man show up at a previous church. Do you know what his first words were to me? “I’d like to teach the junior high boys.”

Every hair on my body stood at attention.

While I was thrilled to have someone eager to serve, I had enough sense to lead our church to adopt a six-month policy. Before volunteers can serve children and youth at our church, they must first be members of the church and active in worship and Sunday School for at least six months.

This gives you time to get to know the person, allows them time to plug into small groups, and provides you time to build trust and accountability.

5. Ministry Safe

Ministry Safe serves as a great resource for keeping the vulnerable safe in your church. From sexual abuse awareness training to helping you develop the best possible policies and procedures, I highly recommend your church consider Ministry Safe.

We can’t afford to be reactive anymore; we need to be proactive. Ministry Safe offers a wealth of resources to help you and your church keep children safe.

Be on guard

I don’t want this article to sound like I want you to be suspicious of everyone. That’s certainly not what I’m suggesting. But I do want you to be on guard.

Pastors are shepherds; we’re entrusted by God to protect His sheep. Part of that means getting your head out of the sand if you don’t think something bad can happen at your church.

But it also means leading your church members to get their heads out of the sand, too. Again, the goal isn’t to make your congregation suspicious of everyone; it’s to help them realize the weight of being entrusted with a flock.

FInal thought

One of the things I learned from the “Houston Chronicle” articles was the imperative need for us to respond the right way. Church leader, if the unthinkable happens in your church, know this:

The reputation of the church is the least of your worries.

Your very first step is to call 911 (or your local jurisdiction’s avenue for reporting). Let the authorities do their job. Then put on your shepherd hat and begin the process of caring for the abused, enacting church discipline on the abuser, and leading your church through adversity.,

Published April 9, 2019

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Matt Henslee

Matt Henslee (@mhenslee) is the pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, New Mexico, D.Min student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of a few books, including Evangelize to Revitalize and Text-Driven Invitation.