Most churches are reasonably aware of the requirement for Safeguarding policies and DBS checks now. However, it’s not something that you are going to get detailed training on in seminary and how churches engage with those requirements varies with some being fantastic and others a little chaotic. Also, I still hear people complain that such requirements are an unnecessary bit of bureaucracy and State interference. So in our little series of “Ministry Nuts and Bolts” articles, I want to make this one a priority.
What is Safeguarding about?
Safeguarding is about ensuring that those who are involved in the life of your church community and are in some way at risk of exploitation and harm are kept safe. This means that there’s a particular focus on two categories. First of all, we have a specific responsibility for children. In the UK a child is legally classified as anyone under the age of 18. It is important to remember this when planning activities and when involving young people including older teens who have believed in the life of the church.
Secondly, there is a category which used to be referred to as “vulnerable adults”. However, partly I suspect because the term is a little subjective and we often use the word “vulnerable” to describe the many ways that any person can display vulnerabilities, that term has been replaced with “adults at risk.” An adult may be at risk of harm, exploitation, abuse etc because of any one of a number of factors that affect their capacity to protect themselves, make informed decisions or give true and informed consent. Such reasons may include health issues including significant mental health issues, disabilities and aging related health issues that diminish capacity.
So, first of all your safeguarding policies should be intended to look after and love those specific categories of people. However, there is another dimension to Safe-guarding. It’s also about keeping the whole church safe and leaders safe from false accusation, from the consequences of negligent or ignorant behaviour and from predators.
Why does safeguarding matter?
As I alluded to above, it can be tempting to see such matters as a bureaucratic inconvenience. Yet as believers we should take this seriously and count it a joy to prioritise it because Safe Guarding is about loving and glorifying God, and about loving one another.
So, at a very practical and pragmatic level, you need to take safeguarding seriously because the cost of failure in this area could be huge. Charity Trustees are required to report any serious failures including of safeguarding measures to the Charity Commission. This means not only that your reputation will be affected but that you could lose charitable status.
At a minimum then we want to protect the reputation of the church and the work of the Gospel. We don’t want anything to hinder that. However, we want to go further and insist that we are acting to positively show our love for God. We do so by seeking to be diligent in all that we do and to reflect his character. He is the loving father who acts to protect his people. Safeguarding is one way in which we reflect that. We show our love and honour for him because we are showing that we care for the most vulnerable amongst us. This demonstrates our belief that they are made in God’s image and worthy of love, dignity, respect and care.
This takes us on to the next point which is that we show our love for one another. We show that we love our workers and helpers by ensuring that they know how to do the work honourably and well. Keeping each other accountable and watching out for one another is a way of showing love. We show that we love the children and adults at risk by taking pride in our care for them. We want them to know they are safe and to feel safe when in our care.
All of this means that safeguarding is to do with our worship and is to do with our responsibility to provide and protect. This means that it falls under the responsibility of the elders in the church. You see elders have a particular responsibility to provide and to protect by looking out for wolves. We are often aware of the destructive danger of false teaching but wolves also come in to devour and destroy by their evil deeds as they seek to exploit and harm people for their own personal gratification.
What should elders and pastors be doing?
This isn’t the sum total of what we should be doing but it is a starting point. First of all, I’d encourage you to familiarise yourself with what the Law says, e.g. by looking at the Children’s Act. Secondly ensure that the systems and processes are in place to provide for safeguarding.
Does your church have a Safeguarding policy?
Do you have an identified safeguarding lead/main point of contact (plus deputy/alternative contact)?
Is there regular training?
Is your church linked in to an external advisory body such as Thirtyone:Eight?
Thirdly, think about how you recruit safely for both paid and voluntary positions. Central to this is ensuring that DBS verification is required but there is more to safer recruitment than this.
Fourthly, show that you see Safeguarding as your responsibility and the high value you place on it. You can do this by:
- Making sure that you announce the training when it comes up
- Making it part of your application when preaching and teaching
- Being there to introduce the Safeguarding training. It’s great when an elder is involved, especially as part of the introduction where you explain why it matters.
- Keep an eye out for risks and warning signs. And take concerns raised seriously.
Most of the time this may feel like a thankless task because usually, this kind of process runs quietly in the background. It’s only when something goes wrong that many people are aware of safeguarding. Yet, the reason that you don’t usually have something go wrong is because the church has taken its responsibilities seriously. However, we do hear far too often of terrible sin and abuse happening within our churches. This should not be so.
Taking safeguarding seriously is an important way of honouring God and loving people. We safeguard people because of our concern to safeguard the Gospel.