In defence of safeguarding

In this month’s Evangelicals Now, John Benton, comparing Safeguarding policies to the controversy over VAR in football writes:

Safeguarding in churches is of immense importance, both for the sake of children and adults. There have been too many people deeply damaged, not only by the more serious and criminal forms of abuse, but by mistreatment from bullying and manipulative leaders. We need safeguarding in churches.

But, just as with VAR in the Premier League, the churches must rethink. What procedures and structures would both honour the authority of eldership within a church, but at the same time maintain a proper independence for safeguarding officers?[1]

I must admit that I am somewhat concerned by the tone and content of the article.  I respect John a lot as an experienced pastor but to mind, he leaps in with the assumption that there is a problem here.  His big claim is that safeguarding is being used as a means to usurp responsibility and authority from  the elders in the church. He writes:

This needs addressing, not only as an occurrence of spiritual abuse an urgent matter, but because there have been occasions where safeguarding officers have sought to wrest control from church leaders. Suddenly, everything in the life of the church is a safeguarding issue which must be exposed to minute scrutiny, and if the elders raise a question about this it is immediately seen as evidence that they have something to hide. It changes the whole ethos of a church. Instead of love and peace, there is a sense that some ‘big brother is watching you’.

That is quite some big claim and so the first thing we need to see before we start ringing the alarm bells for it is evidence. Who are these safeguarding officers who have sought to wrest control?  How often is this happening? What were the actual cases where this was a problem?

The second thing we need to do is to look at how safeguarding processes function elsewhere -where they are most needed. They tend to exist within the care industry and education. Is safe-guarding seen as a restriction on authority in those contexts? I would argue that it is not and the very reason it is not is that it is seen as essential to the work and the responsibility of everyone. The safe-guarding officer is often therefore part of the senior leadership team.

Thirdly, we need to think about what safeguarding is.  Safeguarding officers have specific responsibilities because despite what the article implies, we are dealing with carefully defined matters here.  If you or I were to run into conflict with a pastor or elder, then the safeguarding process would not be triggered. Why? Well because the point about safeguarding is that specific people need to be guarded from abuse and those people are defined in most church policies as children (under 18s) and adults considered at risk (previously referred to as vulnerable). What we mean by “vulnerable” or “at risk” is also carefully defined because in one sense anyone could be classed as vulnerable but technically those words in these contexts are referring to those who have  limited capacity to consent to particularly behaviours or to protect themselves due to either mental or physical medical factors and/or drug dependencies. So the idea that safeguarding officers can make any issue a safeguarding issue is questionable because the issue would have to be both the type of issue that comes under that classification and related to a specific class of people within the church.

Fourthly, I was highly disturbed that at the very time when a specific third party has been invited in by organisations to investigate and advise on abuse claims that an article is published which in effect undermines their work.  I hope that Evangelicals Now will provide space for someone like Justin Humphreys of Thirty One Eight to respond.  There is a simple answer to John’s concerns which is that such organisations tend to be brought in at the invitation of local churches or church networks.  Accountability of their work is found in that it is transparent with reports being made available and subject to review.

Fifthly, the idea that a safeguarding officer can simply take over the church and make every issue a safeguarding issue misses the point that their primary role is to record and report. In other words, if there was a safeguarding issue in our church, then the officer would be expected to report the matter to the police if it was serious enough to touch on criminal law matters. They might also advise the church leaders on how to have effective processes in place and would provide training for volunteer church members in order to prevent safeguarding problems from arising.

Sixthly, I am concerned at what appears to me to be an extremely naïve suggestion from John.

With great thoughtfulness, one pastor I know, being the only elder in his church and aware that he could make mistakes, set up a system whereby his church members could call the pastors of two nearby friendly churches, if they thought he needed challenging. It was wise, humble and helpful

The suggestion seems well intentioned but misses the point that this is in no way a robust alternative to having proper plurality of leaders in the church or alternatively a presbyterian form of shared leadership.  In that case, I would want to ask why the church had got into a situation where it was down to one elder and what was being done to correct that.  I would also challenge the assumption that it was wise for the pastor to identify two other churches for people to go to with concerns. It is so easy to self-select those who might be friendly to ourselves.  What is the likelihood that a vulnerable or female member of the church would be comfortable going with a concern or complaint about her pastor to one of his mates?

I believe that there are things we can do to ensure that our approach to safeguarding is robust, honours the law of the land, protects those who are vulnerable due to age and health and also glorifies God. I will return to those themes in a future article. In the meantime, I trust that John and Evangelicals Now will reflect on the article published.  Experienced pastors and top-notch Christian publications can get things wrong sometimes. I think this is one of those cases.


[1] VAR and church? | Evangelicals Now (e-n.org.uk)

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