What is Safe Sanctuaries?

Safe Sanctuaries is the name commonly given by local United Methodist Annual Conferences and local churches to their individual efforts to make conference, district, and local church programs welcoming and safe for children and youth. Safe Sanctuaries is the title of two guidebooks, Reducing the Risk of Child Abuse in the Church and Reducing the Risk of Abuse in Youth Ministries, written by United Methodist deacon and lawyer Joy Thornburg Melton. These books were published by Discipleship Resources in 1998 and 2003, respectively. Both books are available at your local Cokesbury store or through www.discipleshipresources.org or www.cokesbury.com.

Is there a set standard of care that local churches must follow?

Although Safe Sanctuaries is a guide published to help local congregations in planning, Safe Sanctuaries, Discipleship Resources, The United Methodist Church, and the South Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church are not engaged in the practice of law and accounting. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a professional advisor should be sought. Safe Sanctuaries does not establish a standard of care for churches. Each local church makes its own decisions and determines what is best for it. Safe Sanctuaries and South Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church provide information that may be helpful to churches.

What does the term Safe Sanctuaries encompass?

Safe Sanctuaries, as referred to by the South Georgia Conference, encompasses the efforts made by a local church, district, or the Conference to reduce the risk of abuse to children and youth and to protect the adult workers (either paid or volunteer) who interact with those children and youth in any church activity, whether on-site or away from the church building. The level of Safe Sanctuaries care must be tailored to and provided by each individual local church or district based on the specific needs of that church or district and the specific needs of a given activity. Being known as a Safe Sanctuaries church or district indicates to persons entering your building that a level of care and protection is being provided in that local church or at that district or Conference event.

Why do we need to have this Safe Sanctuaries program?

For the South Georgia Conference, the physical and emotional safety, as well as the spiritual growth of all God's children and youth, is important. We as a Conference are committed to the holistic well-being of each child, youth, and adult entrusted to us. We believe that we as a Church must take reasonable steps to love and protect our children and youth while they are involved in programs and activities provided in and by our local churches, districts, and our Conference. In addition, we must take reasonable steps to love and protect those adults who work with our children and youth. The resolution “Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in the Church” was adopted in 1996 and reaffirmed in 2000 by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. This resolution became the impetus for all Annual Conferences and local churches to implement child and youth abuse prevention policies. In all of our ministries with children and youth, the South Georgia Conference is committed to demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ so that each child will be... "surrounded by steadfast love, established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal" (Baptismal Covenant II, United Methodist Hymnal, p. 44). This effort at Safe Sanctuaries demonstrates our commitment to the physical safety and spiritual growth of all our children and youth.

Why conduct background checks and interviews of existing employees and volunteers?

One aspect of Safe Sanctuaries care includes conducting background checks on persons – both paid and volunteer – who work with children and youth. Doing background checks on staff members and volunteers who have regular and direct contact with children and youth provides uniformity in treatment of the workers. It demonstrates that background checks are not targeted or random. Uniformity of treatment helps guard against any misunderstanding or resentment that might otherwise arise.

What costs are involved?

The cost of preparing to be a Safe Sanctuaries church or district depends on several factors. For example, a church needs to do a physical facilities review for child and youth safety and protection. This physical facilities review may result in the installation of windows in doors to classrooms and offices, an integrated fire alarm and smoke detector system and emergency lighting, and window guards in classrooms for small children. Costs will vary according to your facility's size and configuration. Another expense is that of doing background checks for workers (both paid and volunteer) who are in direct contact with children and youth in our churches and districts. Currently, the cost of those clearances varies widely, depending on the agency chosen to conduct the background checks.

Why should we conduct background checks on our friends who are lifelong church members?

We believe each church should develop an expectation that any person who works with children and youth in that local church or district will have a background check. These checks should not be done randomly, but rather uniformly and consistently. The background checks help to ensure the safety of the children and youth as well as provide appropriate assurance for the adult workers.

How often should background checks be updated?

Background checks should be updated at least every 5 years. If an individual moves away and returns to volunteer in the children or youth ministries of the church a current background check should be run. In addition, if a volunteer relocates to another state and returns, a current background check should be run in the state from which they moved. 

What if you find these expenses difficult to manage?

First, some steps that can be taken have no cost associated with them. For example, having two non-related adults in a room with a group of children or youth has only the cost of the two adults' time (which would mean no financial cost in the case of volunteers). It is likely that you will not be able to make all of the improvements to your physical facility at one time. Instead, you may need to create a ranking of these improvements in terms of highest risk to children and youth and begin there. It may take you several years to accomplish all the projects. For example, you might budget for one project a year. You might consider asking persons to donate to these projects, ask volunteers to fund the cost of their own background checks, or conduct a comprehensive Safe Sanctuaries fundraising campaign emphasizing the need to make your church a safe and welcoming place for all of God's children and youth.

Where can we access sample forms and documents?

Sample forms and documents are contained in the Safe Sanctuaries books, "Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Child Abuse" and "Safe Sanctuaries for Youth: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in Youth Ministries".

What if we encounter difficulty or have questions in implementing a Safe Sanctuaries policy and program in our congregation?

Contact the Office of Connectional Ministries at 888-266-7642.