Your church members and visitors feel comfortable leaving their children in the hands of your children’s ministry staff and volunteers, and why wouldn’t they? Church is supposed to be a safe place full of good people, right?
Ideally, yes. But even in environments filled with people you love and trust, there’s the possibility of unwanted accidents and incidents that could harm the children entrusted to you in your kids’ ministry.
Whether the senior pastor of a church, a children’s ministry director, a volunteer, or a parent of young children, we all have a role to play in keeping our children safe.
To protect the kids at your church and to build healthy family ministries at your church, here are 10 essential child safety practices.
1. Background check everyone.
Your church should run official criminal checks on every man, woman, and teenager who works on staff, volunteers, or interacts with the kids in your children’s ministry. Keep the background checks on file and update them routinely.
Have a protocol ready in case a background check comes back with information that may disqualify someone from helping with the children’s ministry. This will rarely happen, but having policies in place beforehand will protect you from legal action.
In this protocol, write out a script template for those hard conversations. Include your church’s written children’s ministry policies and a list of non-negotiable disqualifiers for volunteers.
2. Equip your team.
Establish a process for vetting and training new children’s ministry hires and volunteers. Your staff members and volunteers need training in basic first aid, child protection practices, emergency preparedness, your church’s check-in/checkout protocols, any age-specific or ability-specific care, and the materials and methods for instruction being used.
3. Recruit plenty of volunteers.
You need more than one or two adult volunteers for each Sunday school class and nursery room. Make sure you have an adequate ratio of adults to children in each age group.
We all know things happen: Trusted volunteers may get sick or decide to take a spontaneous vacation on Friday night, leaving classrooms unattended for the weekend.
If you have plenty of properly trained and vetted volunteers, you will have people to call on when they’re needed unexpectedly instead of wrangling the first willing (and untrained) person you find.
4. Establish “potty-time” rules.
Clear bathroom protocol and rules are a must. They help volunteers avoid confusion and potentially uncomfortable situations—especially if your volunteers have never been parents themselves.
Encourage the children to do as much for themselves as they are capable of (undressing, wiping, flushing, etc.). It’s not only good form—it also teaches the kids good habits and boundaries.
When taking potty-trained children to the restroom, at least two volunteers should go with them. Ideally, each room of kids should have at least two workers with the rest of the kids as well, which leads to the next best practice.
5. Assign floaters.
Have at least two designated volunteers whose only assignment is to go room-to-room and check on volunteers. These people can relieve adults who need to tend to emergencies, take a child to the restroom, find a parent, or assist with a messy cleanup or replenishing resources.
6. Install Dutch doors.
Dutch doors—which are cut in half and unlatch separately—are a huge help with both check-in and checkout time. Keep the bottom door latched and pass small children (walkers up to first grade) over the door to their guardians.
This can prevent anarchy as children trample one another to get out the door and to their parents. It also keeps young children from running out the door before it’s time for them to go.
7. Practice emergency preparedness.
Every child care room should be equipped with a first-aid kit, disinfectant, and children’s antihistamine (for emergency allergic reactions when no epinephrine injector is available). Volunteers need to know where fire extinguishers and exit plans are, have access to first aid, and have immediate access to a phone and water source.
Also, keep a list of children with food allergies posted somewhere and send routine reminders to staff and volunteers of any medical conditions to be aware of. Have lists of parents’ and emergency phone numbers easily accessible.
In addition to having all of these resources handy at every moment, make sure your volunteers are regularly trained on what to do in case of any type of emergency—where the exit plans are, how to handle a medical emergency, who knows CPR, whom to call in each situation (and in what order to call them), etc.
8. Develop check-in/checkout security.
Check-in and checkout security and organization are vital for any children’s ministry. You can easily print matching identification tags using sticky label sheets and a computer spreadsheet.
Print them in pairs; put one on the child’s shirt back and give one to the parent. You can also include phone numbers and names on the stickers in case a parent needs to be contacted to come get a child during the worship service or event.
This is an especially important practice for churches with large children’s ministries. We never think people would try to take a child, but if someone wants to kidnap a child, where would that person go? To where kids are accessible and parents are unsuspecting. This system also protects children who may have strict custody regulations.
The matching sticker system requires adults to prove the child in question belongs with them. The rule is you can’t claim your kiddo if you don’t have the matching sticker.
It is best to enforce this rule universally, even when you are very familiar with families. This way no one feels singled out and everyone is equally protected.
9. Train volunteers and staff to spot abuse.
Sexual abuse is easy to overlook and presents itself through peculiar behaviors. Require a training seminar for all staff (even non-children’s ministry staff) and regular volunteers about how to spot physical and sexual abuse. Also, make sure your staff and volunteers know whom to go to if they suspect any child is suffering from physical or sexual abuse.
Many private agencies—Darkness to Light is particularly noteworthy—offer resources, training seminars, and awareness certifications to prevent child sexual abuse.
No matter the cost, if it spares one child from the pain of enduring abuse, the worth is invaluable. There may be no better way to show children the character of God than to see them and shelter them when no one else can or will. We can do that only if we know the signs of physical and sexual abuse.
10. Report abuse to the proper authorities
Many states classify anyone who works with children, including church volunteers and clergy, as a mandatory reporter. That means they’re legally required to report any suspected child abuse to law enforcement or family services.
Failure to report suspected abuse, if substantiated, is considered illegal for mandated reporters and can result in legal action. Every church should have an established channel for reporting suspected child abuse to the appropriate authorities.
If you are a children’s minister or pastor and you do not know how to report abuse, please schedule a time in the next two weeks to do research or enroll in training. It is vital to know what to look for and how to respond when a child is being hurt. What a difference it makes when a church community is on the lookout for the welfare of its children.
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with professional crisis counselors who have access to a database of 55,000 emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are anonymous. Contact the hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
Children’s ministry staff and volunteers are an essential part of a healthy congregation. Having happy and safe children in kids’ ministry keeps parents engaged in the church.
Use these best practices to help ensure your children’s ministry keeps all kids safe and is set up for long-term health and growth.
This article first appeared at Vanderbloemen.com/blog. Vanderbloemen Search Group is a retained executive search firm that helps churches and ministries build great teams by finding their key staff.