I am writing this article from the beautiful where 72 children and youth from across our presbytery are participating in Camp Agape! My original plan for the week was to float as camp chaplain to help with worship, provide pastoral care to homesick campers and frazzled counselors, and to enjoy some time doing kayaking, hiking, and roasting marshmallows with the kids. However, the wonderful Jill “Hot Diggity Dog” DeRoche pulled me aside and said, “I need your help. I need another counselor with the High School boys so that we can maintain our Safe Sanctuary policy.” The good news is I’m still enjoying a wonderful week of roasting marshmallows, kayaking, and Bible study and I’m also helping make sure that we keep our youth safe from abuse while doing it.
Camp Agape may seem a bit out of the realm of the Stated Clerk or Clerks of Session. However, child protection is a job for both because one of our essential functions is to help the council we serve operate according to the Book of Order, bylaws, policies, and procedures. When it comes to child protection, G-3.0108 requires that all sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly have a plan to keep the youth and children that we serve safe. Note, the Book of Order only requires that each council have a plan but does not require specific elements. That is because each council has different needs to consider. Camp Agape brings children in 3rd-12th grade to a single facility where youth are housed in multiple buildings. Presbytery Youth Coordinator, Amy Heintz, organizes road trips for middle and high school youth to conference centers in Texas and North Carolina where they are housed together. St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church hosts Camp RHINO where youth to do mission service at multiple sites around New Orleans. Several of our congregations have pre-schools. Most of our congregations need to think about Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Youth Groups, and retreats. Each of these has different needs and risks and therefore the policy organizing them will be different even if the goal is the same: to keep every child and youth safe while coming to know the love of Jesus Christ.
With that said, there are some best practices that congregations can adopt like making sure that youth and children are never in one-on-one situations, training staff and volunteers, establishing separate sleeping areas for the genders, and running background checks. While these are best practices, ultimately, they are worthless without implementation. So, I encourage you to write a policy that you can follow because a rigorous policy that is not followed does not protect anyone.
Many churches are currently not having Sunday School (either because of COVID or because they are on their summer schedules). That make now a good time to think about establishing a policy or updating yours before your Christian Education program resumes in the fall. If you aren’t sure where to start I would encourage you to consult the PC(USA)’s guidance on Creating Safe Ministries, contact your insurance company, and reach out to the presbytery if you need further assistance.