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DYK - Safe Sanctuaries

Posted: February 25 2021 at 01:33 PM
Author: Rev. Arlene Christopherson, Ass't to the Bishop/Dir. of Connectional Ministries


“Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a child. . . welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5 NRSV).

Children are our present and our future, our hope, our teachers, our inspiration. They are full participants in the life of the church and in the realm of God.” (Safe Sanctuaries by Joy Thornburg Melton)

During the first quarter of 2021, the Northern Illinois Conference Insurance Board, under the leadership of our Director of Risk Management and Ministry Protection Dwayne Jackson has undertaken the mission of ensuring that every church in the Northern Illinois Conference has a process of screening and training for church volunteers who work with children, youth, and vulnerable adults. Thank you to all those churches who have filled out the survey and take this responsibility seriously.

Our annual conference has long been a champion of providing safe space for those who participate in our ministries. In the early 1990s, we began training clergy around concerns of sexual harassment and misconduct and we began talking about the protection of children and youth. By the 2000s we passed legislation mandating that churches establish policies, background checks and training for volunteers working with our voiceless and vulnerable.  We responded to a growing reality that even in places considered sacred and safe, bad things can happen.

As a denomination, we have called this work “Safe Sanctuaries”. The work of making our programs, outreach, ministries and witness safe for those who are powerless or voiceless. 

Our call as the church is to care for all of God’s creation. Our environment, our souls and those who have no voice for themselves. We do this as a sacred trust, remembering the mantra “Do no harm.” 

We have learned a great deal in the ensuing decades. We know that often the abuser is someone we would inherently trust. We know that abuse takes on many forms, some very subtle but equally damaging. We know that our instinct is to be trusting when we are in the safe environment of the church.

The first time my wallet was stolen out of my church office or when I saw someone hotwiring a car after worship in the church parking lot, or I was held up at knifepoint in a church fellowship hall, I was reminded that the church, our buildings, our sanctuaries, are not exempt from harm. 

Even during this virtual era when we long to be together in person, we must be vigilant and protective of those who enter our ministries with trust and assume a sense of security while we gather online. Our lack of physical contact has not diminished the cautions we must exercise with social media to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Our excitement at coming back together must also be balanced with our need to be “safe sanctuaries”. 

Over the years we have grown wiser about the ways in which we must be alert to harm, but ways of abusing have also grown more complicated. Assuring safety is work we cannot do casually or on our own. A few years ago, the NIC Safe Sanctuaries Task Force entered a relationship with “Safe Gatherings” an agency that provides training and screening for church leaders and volunteers (safegatherings.com). In the last 5 years, we have had over 700 volunteers screened and trained through Safe Gatherings. We know that volunteers come and go, training needs to be renewed. We cannot be complacent.

If your church needs a partner in creating safe spaces or you need to refresh your work in caring for the vulnerable, I encourage you to take your first steps today and be part of the network of congregations demonstrating their love for others in this concrete work of creating “safe sanctuaries”.  

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