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Safe Sanctuaries Policies Provide More Than Just Safety
By Rev. Dr. Suzanne Allen, Regional Missional Specialist

We live in a world where we continually feel vulnerable. It doesn’t matter that in many ways we are the safest we have ever been. Facts and statistics don’t stop worry. The scam phone calls, the reports on the news, and the phishing e-mails don’t help.

We worry about ourselves, but even more, we worry about those we love. We would never forgive ourselves if something happened to them on our watch. We apply sunscreen, buckle-up, buy organic, throw food away just in case, bathe in hand sanitizer, buy security systems, and the list goes on.

But there is something about church. We don’t feel quite as vulnerable at church. We don’t worry as much. There is a routine. There are people we have known for a long time. We’re comfortable. We’re there because we are all good people and we love God. It’s a place we let our guard down.

Because of this, it’s often difficult to think about a Safe Sanctuaries policy and ongoing training. Isn’t this the one place we shouldn’t have to? This seems especially true if we all know each other, when we don’t have a lot of young people in the church, and those that we do have are related to nearly everyone there.

Malcom Gladwell writes in his book Talking to Strangers about the way that we as humans have an extremely hard time knowing whether someone is telling us the truth or not. When it comes to people we know who have power, position, familiarity, and charm, we often overlook key details related to deception because we “default to trust.” We trust them even when we should not, and even when evidence proves otherwise. 

We don’t want to consider that those who we know and who seem so nice and do so much good would do anything wrong. We especially wouldn’t want to wrongfully accuse them. We would feel terrible. What does that say about us?

Unfortunately, the statistics and the facts tell us that there are many in our communities, in our churches, and even in our families who would prey on that trust and use it to harm the most vulnerable among us.

Since we don’t want to decide in the midst of an accusation whose word we are trusting, and since research tells us that we aren’t very accurate in our assessments anyway, it is best to have a policy and practice that we follow. Prevention is the easiest and most pain-free way to stop abuse. A clear, well-communicated Safe Sanctuaries policy is the best prevention tool that we have in the church.

It also helps us know what to do when the most difficult situations come up:

  • Who would you call if you suspected elder abuse? What falls into the category of elder abuse?
  • Who is a mandated reporter when a child’s Sunday School teacher suspects abuse?
  • Do you need to fill out an incident report form when a child breaks their arm during VBS? 
  • What do you do when you overhear an incident of verbal abuse in the parking lot?
  • What do you say when the insurance company calls you about the person who slipped in the kitchen and had to go to the ER?
  • What do you do when a very nice new couple comes and volunteers to run the nursery but refuses to get a background check?
     

A clear and well-communicated Safe Sanctuaries policy helps us answer these questions and more. It gives congregations information, courage, and clear steps to respond. It allows us as the church to witness to the fact that everyone deserves to be safe, everywhere and all the time, but especially in church. It guides the congregation in realizing that safety measures and understanding and preventing sexual abuse and violence are essential to living out our core values of “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.”

If you need additional information about Safe Sanctuaries, contact SafeSanctuaries [at] wocumc.org.

The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Allen currently serves as a Regional Missional Specialist for The West Ohio Conference. Before working at the district and conference levels, she served in the local church for 18 years. She is passionate about resourcing people for mission and ministry. She is married to Daryl and has two children. They enjoy camping, hiking, kayaking, and traveling together.