Dear Floris Family,
In recent weeks we have held training events for Sunday School teachers, student volunteers and staff members on policies and procedures related to child safety at Floris UMC. We have also added two new components to this policy: a card system for Sunday School pick up and drop off, and the request that all children leaving the sanctuary during worship be accompanied by an adult or someone 12 or older.
In the time since these policies have gone in place, some of you have questioned whether these policies and some of our other child safety procedures are truly necessary in a church setting. I want to take time to share the rationale behind these policies and their importance in our congregation.
The United Methodist Church has been a denominational leader in child safety. For the past 15-20 years, our local churches have been performing background checks and using basic procedures such as the “two person rule” and having glass in our doorways to insure visibility into classrooms and offices. Floris’ current policy was first implemented about 16 years ago, just before I became your pastor, so it is not new to our life together. Every UMC in Virginia is required to have a “safe sanctuary policy” and report on it to the District Superintendent. I wish I could say that as a result, all our churches have been free of child abuse during that time. Unfortunately, some churches do not live into their policies, or refuse to implement them at all, making them a safe haven for those who would harm children. Sadly, the result is that like so many other churches and faith communities, the United Methodist Church has had incidents when a child has been abused in one of its congregations. You can imagine the pain and regret this has caused their staff and church members. Just as the scars children bear from these incidents take years, even a lifetime to heal, so the sorrow, regret and anger felt in the church lingers as well.
You may wonder if a child could really be abused or mistreated in our church. Floris feels like our home. Could such a thing really happen here? The answer is a clear “yes, it is possible.” Child abuse happens in all types of churches and faith communities of all sizes. Faith communities are a rich environment for those who would harm children because trust is assumed. This is why our policies must be in place. Those united in Christian love will find these policies to be a very small price to pay to protect children from those who would take advantage of Christian love for their own purposes. Last year a woman entered our facility, went downstairs into our choir area, entered a staff member’s office and stole her purse. Make no mistake, this woman came into our facility for the express purpose of stealing a purse. Her movement through our facility was captured on video cameras. Once she stole the purse, she left the facility and drove away. If someone will commit such a crime on a Sunday morning, while our facility is fully occupied, why would we assume a person who intends to harm or abuse a child would not do the same?
The policies we implement at Floris are in keeping with the best practices of other organizations that work with children, including schools and civic organizations like boy scouts and girl scouts. They are similar to what you find in local daycare centers and after school programs. We are not “over the top” when we ask you to bring a card to identify yourself as the authorized adult when you pick up a child from the nursery or classroom. We are simply in conformity with the best practices for child safety. It is when our church fails to implement such procedures that you should be concerned.
You may think that these policies have to do with the size of our congregation. Let me assure you that this has nothing to do with the size of our congregation. Churches where abuse happens come in every size. The factor that makes it most likely to occur is not size, but the lack of a child protection policy, or a policy that is not implemented in a consistent fashion. The size of our facility does present a unique challenge related to the number of entrances available to someone who wants to do harm. However, the policy was in place in our last facility as well.
As your pastor, I have to decide who I will stand with related to these policies. I can support those who want the best practices possible for the safety of our children, even with the small hassles that accompany them. Or I can support those of you who feel that special training, an identification card used in Sunday School or the request to accompany your child when she or he leaves the sanctuary is excessive. Given this choice, you should know that I will always support the best practices for the safety of our children. The reason is that our children are very important to all of us and deserve our best efforts.
As a pastor I have counseled teenagers, men and women who have been abused as children or who had friends or family members who have endured abuse. These conversations make the choices we face as a church related to child safety fairly simple to me. As long as I am your pastor, I will support the best efforts of those who are responsible for implementing our child safety policies. It is my hope that you will join us in these efforts and make this an experience of church unity rather than one of contention.