Transcript: Do Safety Measures Keep us Safe?
GT: I’m Erica Fehr; I’m EMC communications coordinator and I’m talking today with the Mount Salem leadership team. Albert Loewen is Lead Pastor, Patrick Stanat is Youth and Young Adult Pastor and Jennifer Loewen is Children’s Pastor. We’re going to be talking today about safety and a core question is on whether our culture’s increasing focus on safety has actually created greater safety, created a sense of safety, or has it actually done the opposite and created a sense of risk and danger and fear—and how does that affect church ministry?
Patrick Stanat (PS): It’s kind of interesting, as you were reading the question, my brain started going to, I think how over the last 20 years there’s actually been a departure from what it means to be someone’s neighbour, and I think the departure of what it means to be connected to our neighbours also has put a part of the weight on why we’re looking to be more safe.
Albert Loewen (AL): I think there’s tons to this conversation, but when you think about safety you’re dealing with a culture of parents who are more paranoid and more scared than ever, I think, before, just because we know more than we ever did before. At the same time, leaning on what Patrick said, they’re also more disengaged than ever. You know it used to be, you wouldn’t send your kids somewhere where you didn’t know the parents, whereas now that’s not really the case. I think there’s a lot of culture in churches and I think children’s organizations period, you have to have the perception that you are a safe place. I’m not convinced we’re any safer now. I think the conversation of safety has gotten much bigger because we know more. I’m not sure if that’s created safer spaces or not.
Jennifer Loewen (JL): Speaking just on the same point, we do definitely have policies and protocols in place that we follow. So, all of that is in place, but I also agree a bit with Albert, yes, we have the protocols and everything in place but are we still creating that safer environment?
GT: So, then what is required to actually have genuine safety?
PS: I think one of the parts I would say is engagement. Not just a culture that likes to drop their kids off, but a culture that’s involved and is willing to ask questions and is willing to be a part of the solution in a real way.
AL: With these policies you’re really trying to prevent the opportunity for your kids to be hurt within a structured environment, but what happened before seven and what happened after nine; so much of that is out of your control, so if you really are going to deal with safety—outside of authentic relationship and accountability I don’t think it exists. When you think about your worst-case scenario in these situations, you have to know your volunteers, you have to ask hard questions, you have to monitor your kids. I don’t think there is any policy in the world that is strong enough, that if somebody really, really wants to get around it—because you got—when you think about youth ministry—to me youth ministry is the prime opportunity for predators to get in because youth are so vulnerable. If a leader really wants to do something then they just go off the books and find a way to meet with the teen when it’s not a youth night. Like, they don’t do these things in the open. They find manipulative ways to get through it and I think one of the dangers with implementing a policy is that you go “okay, I have a policy—we’re good.”
GT: You are going to have families who are going to drop off kids in your kids’ program, they’re going to send their youth to your programming without getting to know you. Do you then make the effort to get to know that family or do you just recognize that you’ve been given an opportunity and you are in charge of the safety of that child?
JL: I frequently have kids coming into our programming that I’ve never met before. I don’t know their parents and it’s still very much a priority for me to try to get to know their family and to reach out to their parents and just let them know what’s going on, so they can have that extra reassurance of where they’re sending their kids.
GT: We’ve heard a lot about abuse in the past few years and it’s not slowing down. Does that create an atmosphere where you find it difficult to get ministry workers and where hoops they have to jump through actually prevent people from joining?
JL: I personally don’t see that as a fear. I think most people that come to work, want to work in ministry—they’re being called into that ministry and whatever hoop that they need to jump through to get there they’re willing to do it.
AL: I also think that Jen, in doing what she does, she’s kind of created a culture where it’s not like we’re asking “Is this something you’re okay with us asking of you?” This is just what it’s going to require. There’s not a plan B—you’re either going to do this or you’re not. But I would phrase that question a little bit different Erica and I would say, that knowing what we know about what porn is doing to the brain of both our guys and girls—the damage that we know from a lot of families in regards to molestation happening. We know all these stats, so for us not to go the extra mile I think is really setting ourselves up, and those people up, for failure. Because, if I take somebody who’s fully addicted to porn, as let’s say an early 20-something and his whole mindset is off. He doesn’t want to be a child molester or youth molester. He doesn’t want to do any of that. He’s never done it before, but now you set him up for an environment where he doesn’t have all the safeguards protecting him. I think we’re also putting them at risk. So yeah, I think sometimes when people come brand new to our church, they may be a little surprised. But at the end to me, it’s like I’m not willing to risk your whole future or those kids’ future. I think that’s maybe sometimes what people miss in this conversation—I’m also protecting the volunteers.
PS: You think of especially with the age of electronics that we’re in and how simple it is for someone to send an inappropriate picture to someone else. Working in construction for 15 years, we oftentimes would buck wearing any sort of harness system up on a roof, but at the end of the day, making sure that your guy can show up to work the next day and is protected is a valuable thing.
AL: Most churches—most of your volunteers are what? early twenties? And you have a bunch of teens who are 16-17. Like it is literally a recipe for disaster—we know this already. And so, you put every safeguard in place because you don’t want a leader hurt—you don’t want a kid hurt. But if we can be honest here, we’ve worked incredibly hard as churches to try to re-establish trust with our community, and I want somebody who comes in here, who’s not a Christian, to look at our policies and go “I can tell they are trying—they are doing everything they can to protect those kids.” I just I think you turn away your opportunity to reach into your community when you refuse to do this. We’ve gotten into this thing “well trust us because we’re the church.” That’s not enough. We’ve gone down that road and the church has proven that we are full of the same humans that everybody else is full of. And so, I think we limit outreach, we limit so many things when we don’t do the best we can. At the end of the day you are responsible to keep each other accountable, to do all the loving things that you know Jesus says we do in the church and part of that is going “Patrick, how are you doing?” “How are you doing with this challenge?” and then keeping people accountable. If people are breaking these policies yeah, we may be short leaders, but I’d rather be short leaders and have safe kids, than to have lots of leaders and have even one kid or one leader end up hurting themselves or others.
GT: Is individual ministry harmed in any way—something that you’ve had to give up?
JL: We do actually allow for individual ministry in public places essentially, so if a couple of youths are really in need of meeting with a leader we encourage them to meet in a public location.
PS: Typically speaking we would contact the parents (not typically—you’re supposed to contact them) and you would say “hey, we would like to meet up with so-and-so on such-and-such a date at such-and-such a time at such-and-such a location.” Most of the time the youth can walk to the location—they don’t need a ride so they stay out of your vehicle—it’s gender specific. And even saying that you still have to be careful.
AL: I don’t counsel women one-on-one—I refuse to. So, does that limit my ability? Hundred percent it does, it’s not even a question, but you have to factor in risk and you have to find a way of okay, so obviously kids need time, they need someone to talk to. They need all those things so we don’t want to dismiss any of that. We just need to find ways to do it safely.
GT: So then how does a male lead pastor and a male associate pastor minister to women in your church?
AL: So, there’s multiple things and we try not to make any rule that is just black and white. If there’s is a woman who authentically, I feel like and this happened maybe once or twice in the years that I’ve been here, where I’m like “no, I need to have this conversation with her” what we will do then is we’ll have the meeting in a space and I’ll have one of the other staff that are watching the entire time. We make sure it’s all in the calendar so it’s all trackable, traceable. So, we try to put in as many safeguards as possible for situations that don’t fit perfectly within, you know, the rules that we would like to have.
GT: Jen, I want to turn that question to you as a woman in your church—would you say that women in your church are relationship-building with pastoral team?
JL: Yeah, I think so. Like for the most part, the women in our church have created quite the environment of safety just among themselves, and so whenever a woman reaches out or needs assistance, a lot of times it’s Albert’s wife or Pat’s wife. We have another number of amazing women in our church that are available to give ministerial care in that sense, and when that’s not an option, like we have had like a couple instances where I’ll sit in on a meeting or a session just to give that added sense of security and safety in the meeting and I haven’t seen it to be detrimental at all. I think it’s been a very positive thing in our women.
AL: And I think our church is a little bit unique, Erica, where, I know what you’re getting at, because we’re the paid people and we’re both male and a lot of churches are like that. But in our church, we have a multiple women who have gone through counselling courses whether both professionally and through something like Caring For The Heart. I think getting counselling for guys is much harder in our church than it is for girls. We have a lot of girls who are very good at it, whereas Patrick and I both feel like we’re—I mean we’re willing, but that’s not by any stretch our strongest point. But I think again this goes back to, the church is a body. I mean, the way it was created and I think you then look and go okay well if it was just me and Patrick well here’s some of the limitations and so now we as a church body need to navigate this.
GT: Is there something that you could see needs to be done yet to improve things or that you could recommend to other churches?
AL: We’ve got tons of room for improvement. Now Erica you know I think again, this goes… I’ll make my initial point and maybe I’m being too vulnerable here, but just because you have policies in place, the challenge of continually pursuing relationship within these policies, the challenge of continually finding a way to make sure that you are vigilant. It is hard to not, that when you first put the stuff in place you’re like “we’ve got to get it all, we’re gonna be safe” when you’re three years in, five years in, the challenge to stay vigilant, to stay on top of everything, I think it’s a challenge to ongoingly motivate people to keep following the policies. I think that it’s never a done thing and so that’s why I think when you put it in the context of, if I want my neighbour, my non-Christian neighbour to show up at this church with their kids, what environment do I want for them? What safety place do I want for my youth, my kids in this church? I think when you can put those two things together it helps drive you to wherever you’re at, because I think if you don’t have something in place you’re just limiting your ability, and you really are setting yourself up for being another example for why people shouldn’t trust the church. It’s not guaranteed to happen—I just don’t think it’s a risk worth taking.
JL: I would add to just to be in the mindset of wanting to continually learn. Everything’s gonna change, right? So just keep doing what you can to keep staying on top of things too.
PS: I think it’s important that we see things like limitations as opportunities. How can we be more like the community that God intended us to be and not so centralized in terms of only Albert and I can do counselling because we’re the ones who speak with God, when we know clearly that the Holy Spirit has been given to every believer.
GT: Thank you very much! I appreciate your time here today.
AL: Well thanks, thanks for all you’re doing. Thanks for the work you guys do at the Conference office—appreciate it.