During the past few weeks, I have received a number of inquiries from readers, asking what they can do to help protect children from abuse within their particular faith community. The protection of little ones is not solely the responsibility of leadership. In my experience, the protection of the vulnerable has often been prompted by the concerns of those who simply care for the least of these and want to do something about it. Though there are many things we can do to help prevent abuse, I want to suggest five practical steps anyone can take that will make a significant difference in the lives of little ones in our churches and other faith communities.
1. Recognize the indescribable value of children: There is a story about the late American evangelist D. L. Moody, who arrived home late one evening from preaching a revival service. As the tired Moody climbed into bed, his wife rolled over and asked, “So how did it go tonight?” Moody replied, “Pretty well. Two and a half converts.” His wife smiled and said, “That’s sweet. How old was the child?” “No, no, no,” Moody answered. “It was two children and one adult! The children have their whole lives in front of them. The adult’s life is already half gone.”
Too often, our churches view children in the same manner as Moody’s wife. Instead of treasuring little ones as God does, we too often consider their value as secondary to that of adults. This devaluing of children often leaves them exposed to indescribable harms that have physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences. Wess Stafford, President of Compassion International, perhaps puts it most accurately when he writes, “Small, weak, helpless, innocent, vulnerable, and trusting, they are waiting victims for our simple neglect and most evil abuse. No matter what goes wrong, the little ones pay the greatest price.” Children will never be protected until we value them as God does.
2. Seek out like-minded souls: Find others who are passionate about protecting children and want to do something about it. We may be amazed at the number of people who have this interest, but have remained silent, believing that they don’t know enough or that they can’t make a difference. We will be far more successful in protecting children when we are not going about it alone. Also, remember there is strength in numbers.
3. Become educated: It is so important that those who want to protect children become educated on the variety of issues related to the abuse of children. This doesn’t require us to become child abuse “experts.” It doesn’t even require attendance at a fancy (and expensive) conference. It does require that we invest some time reading some good books on the subject. One idea is to encourage others who have expressed an interest in taking these steps to read a few books on the subject and meet to discuss each. Yes, a child-protection bookclub! Though there are dozens of books on this subject, I want to recommend three books, and one Minibook that I believe will provide a good overview and will begin to help you understand the horrific consequences of failing to protect children. It is important to learn how sexual offenders think and act as they seek to access and victimize children. The best (and most disturbing) book on that subject is Predators by Anna Salter, who has spent the past 25 years researching and interviewing offenders. Dr. Salter does an excellent job in communicating some very difficult facts in a language that anyone can understand. This is a heavy book and is not recommended for survivors. However, I am a big believer that every pastor in the United States should read this book.
If we are going to take steps to minimize abuse, it is critical that we begin to understand the deep personal toll abuse takes on the human soul, and the lifelong harm inflicted when a faith community doesn’t protect children and fails to respond well when told of abuse. In my opinion, the most honest and sobering book on this subject is Christa Brown’s This Little Light.
It is important that people of faith understand what their faith tradition has to say about abuse and those who have been victimized. For Christians, the best book I know of on this subject is On the Threshold of Hope, written by Dr. Diane Langberg. This book provides a refreshing perspective on how the Gospel can bring hope and healing to men and women who have been traumatized by sexual abuse.
Lastly, I want to recommend a Minibook I recently authored, entitled Protecting Children from Abuse in the Church. This is a short 30-page book that explains ways to cultivate an attitude and environment in our churches that provide safety and protection for young ones.
With the exception of Predators, consider passing along these books to others in your congregation. The more people who understand this dark issue, the more likely our churches will become a safer place for children.
4. Be a Resource: Yes, we can become an invaluable resource to our church community as we seek to protect children! As we become more knowledgeable about this subject, we can be a conduit for providing child-protection resources. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be an expert or have all the answers. Knowing where to find the right resources and assistance is itself a vital resource. Here are just a few areas where you can help:
- Child-protection policy: Find out if your church has a child-protection policy. If it does, ask for a copy and inform the pastor that you want it reviewed by a child-protection expert. Organizations such as GRACE, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, and the National Child Protection Training Center are all equipped to assist in reviewing child-protection policies and making suggested improvements. If your church doesn’t have a child-protection policy, offer to convene a committee that will develop such a policy. This will place you in a position to seek expert assistance in developing an exceptional policy. The organizations mentioned above are a good starting place to find such expertise.
- Volunteer to organize annual church-wide child-protection trainings. This training can be provided on site through organizations such as Safe Church, Darkness to Light, and GRACE. Recommend that such training be mandatory for all church employees and any volunteers who serve children or youth. Finally, strongly suggest that all congregation members be encouraged to attend this critical training.
- Ask the pastor to preach on issues related to the value and protection of children (perhaps every April during National Child Abuse Prevention Month) and then offer to provide the pastor with resources as he/she is preparing the sermon–this may even be the perfect opportunity to encourage the pastor to read one of the books mentioned above! In my 20+ years of addressing this issue within the faith community, I have learned that a church is much more likely to make child protection a priority if it is a priority of those in leadership. Sermons are a clear way to demonstrate to the congregation that the pastor values the proactive protection of children.
5. Speak out: As we become more acquainted with the dynamics of sexual abuse, we will be in the best position to identify questionable behaviors that need to be addressed. Whether it is the troubling behavior of an adult with a child or an older child with a younger child, we cannot hesitate to speak out and make sure that our concern is promptly and properly addressed. As our churches develop comprehensive child-protection policies and receive ongoing child-protection training, more and more members will become equipped to identify such concerns and respond to them in a manner that protects and values children.
If at least one person in every church committed to taking these practical steps for protection, I am convinced that our churches would eventually become safe places for our little ones and dangerous places for those who want to hurt them.
Next week, I will suggest some practical steps to make our churches the safest and most welcoming communities for those who have been abused.