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CREATING A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT

by Melodie Bissell

´┐╝The Spirit anointing of Jesus, the Spirit baptism of the disciples, and the Spirit baptism of Cornelius are all functionally equivalent experiences.
Katherine is a 72-year-old dearly loved volunteer at Community Life Church. She rarely misses a Sunday service and is the first face that children and parents see when they arrive at kids ministry. She serves as greeter, substitute teacher, and the children’s pastor’s right hand.

On “bad weather days” she is at the church greeting families. It’s on these days that Katherine makes hot chocolate and homemade oatmeal cookies for the families. It is often said, “If you don’t get along with Katherine, it’s your own fault.”

It was on a Sunday in January that Katherine was asked if she would take care of a child with severe disabilities (Rachel) and keep the eight-year-old engaged by reading Bible stories to her. Katherine willingly agreed; however, as she made her way to the basement to greet the girl, she whispered a prayer that she would be able to keep up with Rachel as she was not as spry as she used to be.

Almost every church has a Katherine. The committed volunteer whom we can’t imagine living without. She really is one of the faces of our ministries. We value her and wish to honour her for she has been faithful through many changes over the last 50 years. She has weathered them all … or has she?

Twenty-four hours later, the senior pastor sat across the desk from Rachel’s parents. This couple were extremely angry as they reported they were certain that Katherine had physically abused their child the day before. They had the evidence to prove it … a bruise the size of a baseball on Rachel’s arm. The girl also attested to the fact that Katherine had hurt her.

Our churches never want to face a scenario like this. We can hardly believe that such a volunteer could be accused of abuse. Could Katherine be guilty of hurting Rachel and, if so, how many other children over the past 50 years could she have hurt?

As a pastor, not only will you be concerned about the possible outcome for the child and volunteer, but you should rightly be concerned that the church could be responsible and think about what this would do to your reputation in the community. You also know you have a legal responsibility to report the abuse to authorities and to call your insurance company. Now the church is required to defend their actions, and the volunteer is left on her own to defend hers.

Forty-eight hours later, the entire church community has heard about the incident and alliances are being formed. The Children’s Aid Society has been called, and the police are now involved. It looks like Katherine will be criminally charged and the church may also be held responsible. Where did the church go wrong?

We may be doing our volunteers a great disservice by not excelling in our volunteer management and care. This includes embracing a theology of the laity which recognizes their giftedness and their contribution to the body of Christ.

Protecting volunteers goes hand in hand with Plan to Protect™. It is all in your perspective. If you view Plan to Protect as an obstacle to ministry, you may be positioning volunteers and the church for failure if allegations or suspicions of abuse land on your doorstep. If you view Plan to Protect as a necessary evil, you are missing the tremendous opportunity of telling your community that the church family is worth protecting, and that the church is a safe place for children to be cared for. If Plan to Protect is a priority within your church, parents and volunteers will rest assured that the leadership of the church is upholding them as valuable. It is all in your perspective.

In our scenario, Katherine could either be on her own attempting to defend her actions or have the support of the church in demonstrating that she indeed can be placed in a position of trust with children.

Ideally, the church should have a volunteer file in place for each individual. With this you and the volunteer will be armed for these types of allegations. The file should include:
  • a volunteer application form;
  • reference checks (for seasoned volunteers these could be endorsement letters of appreciation);
  • a criminal record check that has been conducted within the past three years;
  • annual face-to-face evaluations;
  • a signed Covenant of Care stating that he/she has read and will agree to the church policies;
  • an annual training certificate or confirmation that they have attended annual Plan to Protect training; and
  • attendance records.

It made a significant difference to the police officers when they saw the contents of Katherine’s file. When they read the notes made by the screened hall monitor who was also on duty and the incident report that he had cosigned with Katherine, the police officers backed off and did not lay charges. (Rachel had apparently become anxious and had a meltdown when accompanied to the handicap washroom, and she had thrown herself against the door. Rachel was indeed hurt but not abused.)

The greatest care we can provide for our volunteers is to equip them for service and to offer them protection. We cannot avoid false allegations or distorted stories of events that occur; however, we can certainly excel at volunteer care and Plan to Protect™.

The PAOC has been one of the leading denominations across Canada in providing child and youth protection by making Plan to Protect™ available to its churches. I often remind our clients that the “big spiral-bound book” is not a policy but a protection manual for children and youth, for churches, and for volunteers. Let’s ensure that the volunteers within our churches feel cared for as they serve our Lord faithfully and confidently.
MELODIE BISSELL is the President of Winning Kids Inc. (WKI) and co-author of Plan to Protect®. Most recently, WKI has added a Child Protection Consultant to the team to help church members who find themselves entangled with the Children’s Aid Society to navigate incidents where they are being investigated or where they have had children removed from the home into protective care. For more information on their services, contact Winning Kids Inc. at info@winningkidsinc.ca or 1-877-455-3555
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