Making Church a Safe Place by Charles Burkeen, Associate Ministerial Director, Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
When I was a boy someone came up with the idea of Block Homes and Block Mothers. (They’re still big in Canada, only now it’s called the “Block Parent” program.) When I was a kid, parents and teachers told us to look for signs in windows of homes with a picture of a house with a smiling face. They told us that if we were walking home from school, or going to a store, or walking anywhere else in the neighbourhood and a bully tried to pick a fight with us or someone tried to kidnap us, we could run to that home and we would find a safe haven. The Block Mother would give us cookies and milk and she would call our parents for us. The Block Mother would make sure that everything was okay.
I never had to make use of a Block Home, but that sign in the window was always comforting. It just felt good to know it was there. It sent a message to the bullies that here was a place that they could do no harm. It sent a message to me that there was always a safe place for me to go if I needed it.
Jesus has the same vision for His church. He intends that every person should know that church is a safe place.
The psalmist says, “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in Spirit.” (Psalm 34:17-18) We, as church leaders, stand in the place of God to the vulnerable. God calls us to be His instruments of protection for those who are in danger of victimization. Here are some steps to consider as you work to make your church a safe haven for all of God’s children:
Make sure you are a safe person. What are your motives as a church leader? Whom do you seek to benefit from your position of leadership: yourself or your congregation? Ezekiel 34:1-10 talks about shepherds who, rather than feed the flock of God, feed themselves on the flock. God says He will hold those shepherds accountable—needless to say, you don’t want to be in that position! I imagine that these shepherds started out with noble intentions, but time and the devil wore away at their integrity. Do you still live and serve according to honourable motives, or has time and the devil corrupted your heart? Be honest with yourself, and make sure that you are still a safe leader.
Recruit safe leaders. In our conference we require background checks for everyone in church leadership, especially those working with young people. This serves a couple of purposes—it weeds out some who have a troubling history of abuse, and it serves warning to those who would like to attain a position of power to abuse others. You can check with your local conference officials to find if they have a background check system in place. You can also speak with your state police department; they often have information regarding sex offenders on a public website. The bottom line is this: It is better to leave a church leadership position unfilled than place someone with a questionable character in a station of authority.
Place eyes everywhere. And lock up rooms that are not in use. Abuse happens when a church is not watchful. An open door to an unoccupied room is an invitation and opportunity for a perpetrator. A church that is diligent in its efforts to prevent abuse will frustrate those with evil intentions. My church assigned deacons to walk the halls, walk the parking lot, and look into the various rooms of the church during our worship services and other activities. We realized that the more eyes we have watching our facilities, the safer our church became.
Advertise your efforts to make your church a safe haven. Get the word out. Perpetrators look for churches who are lax or willingly ignorant of the problem of abuse. They will avoid congregations who are wise to their tactics. Speak openly about your dedication to making your church a safe place. Explain your policies for approving people for leadership positions. The deacons roaming the halls will speak for themselves! Don’t focus on the problem of abusers victimizing unsuspecting church members, but rather point to the vision of a safe church.
God calls us to be safe leaders who provide safe havens for the weak and disadvantaged of the world. He wants our churches to be safe havens where His people can worship Him with a sense of peace, free from the anxiety of this sinful world. And when people find such a place, they will be more willing to spread the word that we have a God who “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in Spirit.”