Safe sanctuaries or exclusive sanctuaries?

Safe sanctuaries or exclusive sanctuaries?


It’s Open House Month in the United Methodist Church, a time when we emphasize hospitality to visitors and newcomers.

It’s also a time when the debate over immigration reform is heating up. Since 1980, the United Methodist Church has issued statements of support for immigrants and refugees declaring that “being an undocumented person is not a crime.” And yet, many United Methodists ask how the church can support someone who is disobeying the laws of the United States. (See related UMNS story.)

Here in Holston, congregations are launching a new year of children’s and youth activities, while trying to welcome new communities of immigrants into their churches. Some are discovering what could be conflicting principles.

For instance, how can a church protect children with “Safe Sanctuaries” policies, without excluding immigrants and international students from some of their activities?

The rub lies in a Safe Sanctuaries policy that recommends background checks for staff and volunteers who work directly with children and youth, in order to reveal any history of child abuse or violent crime.

In 2004, the Holston Annual Conference adopted a Safe Sanctuaries resolution that made child-abuse prevention policies mandatory in each church by fall 2005. Most Holston churches followed through on training and implementing the policies, according to the Rev. Dan Gray, Holston coordinator of youth ministries.

“Safe Sanctuaries” policies are derived from guidebooks of the same name, written by United Methodist deacon and lawyer Joy Thornburg Melton. The books are published by Discipleship Resources and are available through Cokesbury Bookstores.

Last year, a Holston church with a background-check requirement found itself in a dilemma when an undocumented person wanted to serve as a children’s ministry volunteer.

A similar situation was noted by Clayton Childers, director of conference relations for the General Board of Church and Society in Washington, D.C. His daughter’s roommate, a citizen of Northern Ireland, is currently a student at a United Methodist college who volunteers at a church youth program. If the church had required a Social Security number for a background check, she would not have been able to serve, because she doesn’t have a number.

“The goal of the [Safe Sanctuaries] policy is to make sure children and youth are safe, and we have to figure out how to get to that point without excluding or closing the doors on people who want to be involved,” Childers said.

A net of protection

Background checks are recommended, but not mandated by the Safe Sanctuaries program, according to ministry leaders. In fact, each church should create a child-abuse prevention policy that reflects its own congregation.

Each church has to pay attention to how they can particularly keep children and youth safe,” said Mary Alice Gran, director of children’s ministries for the General Board of Discipleship, in Nashville, Tenn. “In other words, don’t write anything in your Safe Sanctuaries policy that you’re not going to do.”

A congregation located near a university, for example, might write a policy requiring background checks for everyone – with the exception of international students. Those students might be allowed to work with children, as long as they are always accompanied by a worker whose background has been checked, Gran said.

"Frequently, churches will make exceptions in their policies, anyway,” said Gran. “For example, vacation Bible school is often an entry-level point to get a lot of volunteers involved. Volunteers who haven’t had background checks can be greeters or kitchen workers, instead of working directly with the children.”

Background checks remain important, said both Gran and Gray, and shouldn’t be quickly discarded for convenience or because parishioners think they know everyone in the church. “Maybe you know them, and maybe you don’t,” Gran said.

But when background checks are impossible, remember that they are just one element of the Safe Sanctuaries recommendations.

"Background checks are just one piece of the puzzle, and that’s why it’s left up to each local church to determine how they protect children and youth,” said Gray, Holston coordinator of youth ministries.

"Safe Sanctuaries is meant to be a net of protection. The best protection is to take all the elements offered, but you’re free to pick and choose pieces of the policy. Some elements may be stronger than others. I think it’s more important to observe the two-adult rule,” he said.

The “two-adult rule,” according to the Safe Sanctuaries guidebook, requires no fewer than two adults present at all times during any church-sponsored program, event, or ministry involving youth or children. “Risk will be reduced even more if the two adults are not related,” according to the Safe Sanctuaries book.

Windows in all classroom doors – or open classroom doors – are also recommended. For small churches with a shortage of volunteers and smaller groups, a solution is to designate a “roaming” worker who regularly looks in on each classroom, Gray said.

"The desire of Safe Sanctuaries is to avoid the isolation and secrecy related to child abuse.”

Common sense

The Rev. Arturo Reyna, Morristown District, and the Rev. Mike Feely, Chattanooga District, both work in Hispanic ministries and believe that using a little common sense can satisfy all concerns.

Reyna is former pastor of the Door of Heaven UMC of Wytheville District, Holston’s first chartered Hispanic congregation. Today, he directs Morristown Hispanic Ministries. At Door of Heaven, Reyna said he allowed only legal immigrants to be placed in church leadership positions.

He also placed fliers with the church’s Safe Sanctuaries policies in both English and Spanish on the bulletin board for everyone to read.

"We gave leadership classes for people to attend and explained what we needed to do in case something would arise and how to prevent it,” Reyna said.

If only one adult was available to work with children or youth, church leaders would monitor the classroom, he said.

Feely – whose ministry includes directing the St. Andrews Center inner-city ministry program in the former St. Andrews UMC – said that he supports background checks. But with many immigrants from Latin America or Africa, background information is not available. Also, many of Feely’s volunteers are high school or college students who are unlikely to have background information.

"There are ways you can do ministry where you feel you are safe and people are being watched over,” he said. “I make sure we have non-related adults together working with the program and do not have adults by themselves.”

Most of his activities are organized in one large room, Feely said. That ensures safety, as well as builds a connection among volunteers and participants from different ethnic and age groups. “Part of it is to break down walls.”

While many Holston churches implemented their Safe Sanctuaries policies in 2005, leaders should constantly evaluate their policies and update them as needed, while providing an annual orientation for workers, Gray said. Because the rate of turnover among workers is high, it may be prudent to offer the orientation every six months, according to the Safe Sanctuaries guidebook.

For more information about Safe Sanctuaries and background checks, visit or contact the Connectional Ministries Office toll-free at (866) 690-4080.

John Shearer is a member of Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville District, where his wife, the Rev. Laura Shearer, is associate pastor. Annette Spence is editor of The Call.