Safe Communities

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

safe haven churchThese days it seems we hear revelations of sexual misconduct regularly, among newscasters, politicians, entertainers, teachers, sports figures and even church leaders. The church should be a safe place where people can worship, learn, serve and care for one another in a safe environment. Children and adults alike should expect to enjoy a safe environment. “Safe” means free of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse, as well as sexual and racist microaggressions. It is the responsibility of church leadership, lay and clergy, to establish guidelines and boundaries for behavior in the life of a congregation. When lines are crossed, we must act.

There are some things that you can do to minimize misconduct. Every congregation should have Safe Haven Guidelines. Such guidelines lay out the congregation’s commitment to being a safe place for children and youth. They establish a code of conduct. For example, a common rule is the “two-adult rule.” Children and youth are never supervised by one adult alone. This provides accountability. Another example is the “six-month rule.” A new member cannot work with children or youth until having worshipped regularly for at least six months. Sexual predators look for quick and easy access to kids. Churches are often targets. Most predators won’t wait around six months to get access to kids.

Background checks should be run on all adults who work with children or youth in any capacity. Some congregations budget for this. Other of them charge it back to the adults who work with youth. If you want to work with youth, we expect you to participate in this important act of safety. Some congregations have dodged a bullet through this practice. While some will see this as a nuisance, for most parents, it raises their confidence in the church. Do you want adults with multiple DUIs driving kids around for youth events? Would you like someone with multiple convictions caring for kids? Background checks can cost between $10 and $20, a small price to pay to keep our children safe.

Creating Safe Spaces Workshop

On October 27, 9am-12 noon, LEAD and the Synod will offer a Creating Safe Spaces Workshop to help congregations get set up. Congregations are invited to bring a team of 3-5 people (pastor/staff person, council rep and children/youth volunteer). You will leave with a draft of your own congregational Safe Haven Guidelines and a plan to continue the implementation process when you go home. It will be up to your Congregation Council to adopt it, but your draft will get you most of the way there.

As church leaders, we want our ministries to be safe, healthy and caring environments safe haven for kidsfor children and youth.  Whether it is in Sunday School, at Confirmation or at a lock-in, we want everyone to be safe.  In a world with so much hurt, churches can be vulnerable to abuse when we haven’t carefully thought through how adults are screened and trained to work in environments with children/youth.

What about adults?

Children are particularly vulnerable, but adults also experience a host of inappropriate words and actions. Every person’s body is their own. They have the right to be hugged, shake hands or not be touched at all. Leaders need to stand behind this. If someone is the victim of inappropriate touching, or inappropriate comments, they should speak to the pastor or a member of the Congregation Council. A couple of Council members can speak to that member. If the behaviors continue, disciplinary action should be initiated. All are welcome, but one person does not have the right to make the space unsafe or unwelcoming for others. Leadership is the immunity system of any organization.

What about convicted sex offenders?

Someone accused of a sex offense should be carefully monitored, but people are innocent until proven guilty. If, however, someone has been convicted, other steps must be taken. Those who have committed crimes and served time have a need for spiritual community as much as anyone. Congregations can establish clear, written guidelines for such individuals. Those guidelines stipulate which service will be attended, and which buildings, including which parts of those buildings are off limits. Such individuals must always be accompanied. The synod office can help you establish these guidelines, which must be public, and approved by the Congregation Council, that way everyone helps keep the community safe, for the sake of the church and also for the sake of the convicted offender.

What about pastors and deacons?

Pastors and deacons are in a particular role of power. Those who wear a robe, stand before the people and speak the Word of God are held to the highest of standards. When professional church leaders use their position and power for personal gratification, or to use or demean others, families suffer, the Congregation suffers, the wider community suffers and the witness of the church is harmed. Such stories in the news are heart-breaking.

The ethical standards of conduct for professional leaders are set out in a document called Visions and Expectations. This document is currently being updated and will likely have a new name in the next year or two, but the current documents, one for pastors and one for deacons are available online. Disciplinary guidelines called Definitions and Guidelines are also available.

What to do if you are a victim of (or know of) sexual abuse by a bishop, pastor or deacon

First of all, tell someone. Find a safe place. A friend, a counselor or a pastor. If the misconduct involves a minor or violent behavior, report it to the police. If the perpetrator is a bishop, contact the ELCA Churchwide Offices in Chicago. Ms. Barbara Keller, 773-380-2568, Barbara.Keller@elca.org specializes in this area. If you contact the ELCA Churchwide Offices in Chicago about a pastor or deacon, they will contact the local bishop immediately.

If the complaint is against a pastor or deacon, contact the local bishop. In this synod, the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, that is Bishop Michael Rinehart, 281-873-5665, bishop@gulfcoastsynod.org.

How is misconduct handled?

Bishops are trained to handle misconduct legally, transparently and compassionately. The local bishop will begin an investigation. Bishops do everything in their power to help reporters of abuse and victims to remain anonymous, unless they give permission to share their identity.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a zero-tolerance policy. This means that reports are taken seriously and investigated. Misconducts get removed from the clergy or deacon roster. Allegations that involve breaking the law get reported to the civil authorities. Those who resign under allegations of misconduct, in order to avoid disciplinary action, go off roster and cannot return unless the investigation is complete. After a misconduct, full disclosure is made to the congregation to avoid speculation and provide healing for other potential victims. Full transparency is practiced. Finally, no leader gets removed because of baseless accusations or hearsay.

People are people. People have abused power and violated trust going back to David in the Old Testament times. The church can do many thimgs to be a safe space, but there will always be predators. What the church can do is identify predators and deal with them forthrightly. Here are some resources for members of congregations and their surrounding communities: