Mission Lab

ERLC conference: “Eye opening”

Children’s ministry workers realize more can be done to protect kids

October 5th, 2019 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

ERLC conference: “Eye opening”

GRAPEVINE Five children’s ministry volunteers and employees from Southside Baptist Church in Henderson were among more than 1,650 participants at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s National Conference Oct. 3-5. The sold-out meeting in Grapevine addressed the reality of sexual abuse within the church and how to care for those affected by it. The volunteers went to the conference believing the church’s newly revised child safety protocols kept children and youth safe at their East Texas church. They left determined to do better.

“We went from eyes wide shut to eyes wide open,” Tom Dumas, a long-time AWANA leader, told the TEXAN. “I thought we were doing a pretty good job of it, but this has really opened my eyes of how much more work we have to do.”

The others agreed, including Dumas’s wife, Bobbie Sue Dumas, a Vacation Bible School and AWANA Club volunteer. She said the AWANA Club vetting standards were more rigorous than the church’s.

Until recently, the church had child safety protocols on paper but not so much in practice. Background checks for nursery workers and child safety training required by AWANA International for its volunteers served as the main safeguards from abuse.

But three years ago, a church member who worked for Rusk and Panola Counties Children’s Advocacy Center approached nursery director Merry Rodriguez and offered to update the church’s child safety protocol. Rodriguez welcomed the professional oversight. Created for the nursery, the new guidelines have been applied to all ministries involving minors.

Eyes wide shut

Donna Crawford, a Sunday school teacher and children’s choir volunteer, admitted the close-knit environment within the 120-member church fosters a sense of security. That’s a common yet costly mistake that can lead to abuse, according to child safety advocate Kimberlee Norris. Norris and her husband, Gregory Love, both attorneys, founded MinistrySafe to help churches establish best practices for keeping children and youth safe from sexual abuse within the church.

Prior to beefing up their safety protocols at Southside Baptist Church, background checks served as the main security check for volunteers working with minors—as is the case with many churches. The practice, while important, does not catch perpetrators already in the church who have never been arrested or charged with sexual assault, Norris and Love said during multiple presentations. Without an arrest record, abusers pass the gatekeepers’ security measures and enter the sheepfold.

Having known people who suffered abuse, Donna Dumas has “kept her children close and her eyes opened”—even in the church—and believes her church can do more.

Listening to survivors recount their stories of sexual abuse perpetrated by trusted members of the church was difficult for Merry Rodriguez. The stories unnerved her, as a mother and the church’s nursery director, yet they also steeled her resolve to return home and, yet again, update safety protocols.

Some of the practices the Southside Baptist Church group said they will consider adding to their safety protocols include: references; previous positions where the applicant has worked with children; and an interview process with strategic questions designed to illicit responses that can suggest ulterior motives.

Ministry leaders must also be alert to “grooming” behavior employed by abusers. Those are conversational and behavioral tactics used by abusers over time to gain the trust of adult leaders and the targeted victim over time.

Striking a balance between naiveté and paranoia will be essential, Rodriguez said.

“We’ve got to land in the middle,” she said. “It’s just a struggle to get to the middle.”

Taking the message home

All of the information—from abuse survivor testimonies to best practice recommendations—was a little overwhelming, Donna Crawford’s husband, Billy. Newly retired and in his first year as a volunteer in children’s ministry, he said guidelines are very different than when he volunteered for the Boy Scouts in the late 1970s.

The group agreed that convincing their church of the “why” regarding new policies will be essential.

“This is going to be a paradigm shift and a culture change,” said Tom Dumas.

While some members may balk at the proposal, the Southside Baptist Church volunteers believe most will support the initiative. 

“If you give them reason why we want to do this—most of the people in church are parents and grandparents—they would not want their children to suffer,” said Donna Crawford. “So, I think if you approach it that way you would have a better response.”