Why Your Congregation Should Have a Safe Sanctuaries Policy

A Safe Sanctuaries Policy spells out in writing the covenant between church leaders and members. It provides clear steps for action and reporting abuse by those within the congregation. It helps us protect and serve our congregations in their homes, schools and workplaces when we suspect something is not as it should be. 

We pray that we never need to implement the steps laid out in our Safe Sanctuaries policies, but when an incident occurs or a situation of abuse/neglect concerns us, the policy gives us clear direction and steps to follow which minimize anxiety and guide us to take the necessary legal action and provide appropriate pastoral care.

Every congregation needs a Safe Sanctuaries Policy for the following reasons:

Theological: Throughout the history of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament, worship was the focus of the covenant between God and God's people. Whether worshiping at a pile of rocks in the desert, in a tent with the Ark of the Covenant, or in the beautiful temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem, the place set apart for the worship of God was both a spiritual and physical place of safety – a sanctuary. 

In her book, "Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of  Abuse in Church for Children and Youth," Joy Thornberg Melton writes: "We must remember that our churches are holy places of sanctuary for the children of God. Our churches must continue to be places where people of all ages can come together for worship, study and service, with the assurance that they are safe and secure in the community of faith." 

United Methodist Resolution:  In 1996, our General Conference adopted a resolution to reduce the risk of child/youth sexual abuse within our churches. This resolution has been reaffirmed and continued at every General Conference since. This resolution calls us to:

  • acknowledge the risks and develop a piratical plan to reduce sexual abuse of children/youth in the church
  • take steps to prevent harm to our children/youth and those who work with them.
  • continue to answer the Gospel's imperative to be in ministry with children/youth, making a difference in their lives.

Practical: Since the adoption of the Resolution in 1996, several state governments (including those of the six states in the New England Conference) have changed or created laws that require clergy, youth ministers, directors of Christian education, those who work with children, youth and vulnerable adults to report ANY SUSPICION of child/youth/vulnerable adult abuse or neglect to legal authorities and appropriate state agencies. 

Legal: A written and adhered-to Safe Sanctuaries policy minimizes the risk of inappropriate people coming into contact with  children/youth/vulnerable adults in our churches. Criminal record background checks, the checking of references and waiting periods for new members to engage in ministry, and the keeping of records demonstrate that our congregations have done their due diligence in hiring staff and recruiting volunteers, and offers us some liability protection in the event of a law suit.

The General Conference in 2004 adopted a similar resolution regarding the protection of elderly and vulnerable adults. Safe Sanctuaries policies should follow the same guidelines and action steps to minimize risk for and to protect elderly/vulnerable adults within our congregations. 

In 2010, the Annual Conference of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted Resolution 209 - Policies and Proceedures - Safe Sanctuaries. The resolution makes clear the obligations and responsibilities of United Methodist Congregations and Districts within the New England Conference.