Making church a safe place for all

By Francine Biere | Feb 13, 2023

Sexual abuse prevention and response recommendations for churches include establishing practices and policies for working with minors, such as the use of this check-in station at Real Life Church in Yuma.

Peter told the elders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them,” 1 Peter 5:2a (NIV).

That is why Arizona Southern Baptists’ Sexual Abuse Response Team was formed last year.

The team was tasked with reviewing recommendations from an investigation of the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse cases.

“The Arizona team’s assignment was to offer specific recommendations on what our Arizona network can do to make sure we have the necessary tools and procedures to protect our children, members and attenders,” said Jack Marslender, president of the Arizona Mission Network of Southern Baptists when he appointed the team last year.

Twelve recommended practices (posted at azsbc.org/caring-well) were developed by team members Dan Sneed, a member of North Phoenix Baptist Church in Phoenix, and Dr. Lynn Coppola, a member of Mountain View Baptist Church in Tucson.

Snead said the process started with a lot of prayer, research and discussion about how churches could prepare and respond.

Snead and Coppola were a perfect fit for this challenge as each brought different perspectives and had skills that complemented the other. Snead focused on ensuring the need for written procedures, policies and training was clearly communicated, as well as the importance of proper reporting and investigations.

“Dr. Coppola had other priorities,” Sneed said. “She has great instincts and a heart for every person that is hurting when the procedures and prevention training fail.”

He went on to say, “She wanted it to be clear that churches need to be prepared to minister effectively to everyone affected by a sexual abuse case. The ministry needs section of the recommended practices may be last on the list, but it also might be the most important. It’s the only thing that we can really control, so we must get that right.”

Although working independently, Snead and Coppola were surprised by how similar their individual versions were. Once combined, they created a simplified list of the standards broken down into three categories: prevention, response and ministry needs.

“Consolidating the list down to just 12 recommended practices was probably the hardest part of this effort,” Snead said. “To be clear, while this may seem like an overwhelming list, it really is only scratching the surface. These recommended practices should be considered a starting point [for churches].”

The duo used a variety of resources in creating the recommended practices.

The Introductory Guide to Caring Well, created by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was the basis for the team’s recommended practices. Becoming a Church that Cares Well, from Lifeway, as well as reports and articles from other ministry organizations, insurance companies, and local and federal government websites, were used.

“It is the responsibility of every church to ensure they are doing all they can to protect our children and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse and to respond well when there is an incident,” Snead said.

When researching what victims find most or least helpful after a disclosure of sexual abuse, it became increasingly evident to the two that the nature of the church’s response is a key determinant of the victim’s healing.

“An unprepared and/or unsupportive response by the church can further compound the trauma and delay the victim’s healing,” Coppola said. “In contrast, a prepared and supportive response can allow that healing process to begin. The 12 recommended practices were proposed not only with a goal of preventing sexual abuse within churches but also providing churches with a toolbox to address any allegations in a prepared and supportive manner that will foster trust and healing, not only for the victim but also the entire congregation.”

Next Steps

  • Help your church be safe for survivors and safe from abuse. Compare the 12 recommended practices to the measures your church currently has in place. Are there changes or additions that need to be made to make your church safer?
  • Does your church need help taking the next step? Go to azsbc.org/caring-well for details and resources related to the 12 recommended practices, links to volunteer screening and training resources, videos, information on mandatory reporting and a link to Southern Baptists’ Caring Well Challenge.
  • If you are, or have been, a victim of sexual abuse or suspect sexual abuse by a pastor, staff member or member of a Southern Baptist church or entity, call the SBC hotline at 202-864-5578 to report the abuse. Survivors will be notified of the available options for care and will be put in touch with an advocate. All calls are confidential.
  • If you know about sexual abuse of a minor, report it. See “Reporting Abuse” at azsbc.org/caring-well for more information.

Francine Biere, a freelance writer living in Sierra Vista, is a member of Village Meadows Baptist Church, Sierra Vista.

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