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DYK? - Foundation for Building Safe Sanctuaries

Posted: October 1 2018 at 12:00 AM
Author: Rev. Arlene Christopherson


As fall settles in, Sunday School and youth ministries ramp up. At the same time, news stories of child abuse in the church remind us that we all need to provide safe space for our children, youth and vulnerable adults. This fall is a good time to refresh Safe Sanctuaries policies and practices in every local church.

The term Safe Sanctuaries became familiar to United Methodists in the early 2000s with the publication of a guidebook from Discipleship Ministries by Joy Thornburg Melton. Ten years earlier United Methodists were already working on the prevention of child abuse in the church through a variety of resources and educational events.

We have long acknowledged that there is no “magic bubble” of protection for our children and youth when attending church functions. It is our responsibility to screen and train our staff and volunteers, doing everything we can to ensure the churches care for those who trust and need our protection.

I know that our churches are thinking seriously about these issues. In the past month, we have received numerous calls and emails asking for assistance in updating Safe Sanctuaries policies. This is a great start! Policies that sit at the back of the file drawer are not very effective. Policies that were written 10 years ago probably need some refreshing. Policies that are not shared annually with staff and volunteers fade away over time. 

If your church does not have a Safe Sanctuaries Policy or if is time to update the one you have, there are resource links on our conference website at to assist you in this work. One of those links will take you to resources at United Methodist Discipleship Ministries. There you will find tools for designing a Safe Sanctuaries policy as well as sample policies for large and small congregations.

Following the initial work in the 2000s when churches began to write Safe Sanctuary policies and train their volunteers, the conference realized it needed a more consistent, sustainable way of bringing quality training and screening resources to every local church. It was out of this need that we developed a partnership with Safe Gatherings in 2014. 

Safe Gatherings is an organization designed to meet the needs of our churches through low cost, high quality, consistent and easily accessible online training, and background check processing. This resource began in the Kansas East Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2012 and now serves 4,000 churches and organizations across 40 states and multiple denominations. 

We use the Safe Gatherings training and background check process for our Northern Illinois Conference camping staff and volunteer leaders in conference level events. Last year 37 of our churches also turned to Safe Gatherings for their training. Over 125 volunteers were trained, but this does not cover every congregation engaged in ministry with children and youth. 

We need to do better. More congregations need to establish or refresh their policies and practices, train their staff and volunteers. We have been offered the precious opportunity of welcoming children and youth into the family of faith. We want our faith community to be a place of security and safety so the stories of Jesus gathering the little children around him are stories of hope and love and safety. You can find information on Safe Gathering also on our website.

I encourage you to assess where you are as a congregation and make plans now to become a Safe Sanctuary community this fall. 

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