I almost didn't write this post, because I don't like talking negatively about churches and children's ministries, but it's too important to not share. As a children's ministry leader, I know what it's like to run into issues on Sunday mornings with staffing rooms, volunteers not following or enforcing policies, or volunteers not showing up. I also know what it's like to have parents who complain or criticize the ministry. This post is in now way to shame other churches or volunteers who may be trying hard and doing their best, or unintentionally missing something. The safety of kids and the comfort level of parents is the most important part of children's ministry. If we can't keep kids safe, we can't teach them about Jesus.
I've visited several different churches recently, and while some of them have been absolutely amazing experiences, I've had a few instances where I didn't feel safe as a parent leaving my kids in the children's ministry, which hindered my ability to focus on the worship and the sermon, and made me not want to return to those churches. If parents don't feel comfortable or trust your children's ministry, you may miss your chance to minister to families.
1. Closed Door Classrooms (And No Windows)
In one church, I dropped off my three year old at a classroom with a solid door (no window), and a teen volunteer (no other helpers). There was no one to greet me at drop off time or tell me if the classroom was even open and ready to accept kids. I just walked up to a closed door that I couldn't see through. Not only was it not welcoming, but it isn't safe.
There should always be an open door (or a window), a half door, some way for others to see into a room. There should never be a situation or time when a volunteer is alone in a closed room with kids, with no accountability or visibility from the outside. This is not only to protect the kids, but also to protect volunteers against accusations.
Solution: Install dutch doors (leave the top half open); baby gates, station volunteers at the open door, or see-through windows. A camera in every classroom adds another level of security (I've been in a church with multiple situations where we needed to watch video footage of specific incidents that happened during class).
2. One Volunteer Alone (Or No Volunteers)
In another church, I dropped my one year old toddler girl off in a nursery with one man (who wasn't identified as a volunteer in any visible way) and a closed door with no window, and no other helpers or volunteers. Then I dropped my three year old son off in a large room with a few other elementary aged kids, and no children's ministry volunteers. One of the church's parking lot greeters told me he would stay with all the kids until the children's ministry volunteer (who I had never met, as it was my first time visiting the church) arrived. I wasn't given a registration form or asked to give them any information about myself or my kids.
*In most circumstances, a volunteer should not be alone in a room with kids. Some churches I know do allow a volunteer alone in a room if no other helper is available, as long as a door is open, and a hallway volunteer is available if needed for emergencies. While I don't recommend this, and I probably wouldn't feel safe as a parent leaving my kid alone in a room with only one volunteer, there may be circumstances in which churches can make this call. Your church's insurance can also give you details on whether or not they have requirements about volunteers in rooms based on liability. There is never a time when it is ok for a volunteer to be alone in a bathroom with kids. (My next post will dive into how to write a bathroom policy for your children's ministry.)
Solution: A minimum of two un-related volunteers in every classroom. All children's ministry volunteers should be screened, background checked, should be asked to fill out an application, and trained. While serving, they need to be identified in some way as volunteers (name tag, sticker, lanyard, T-shirt, etc.).
3. No Check-in System (Or a Check-in System Not Enforced)
I didn't feel comfortable leaving my kids at a children's ministry with no registration form for first time guests to collect information about the kids, and no check-in system to make sure my kids are picked up by the correct person. One church I visited did have a check-in system, and we were given stickers, but even though it was our first time and the volunteers didn't know me, no one asked to see my pick-up ticket when I went to two classrooms to pick up my kids after the service.
Solution: Even if your church can't afford a computer check-in system, you can use pre-printed stickers with spaces for parents' and kids' names and information, or you could use matching bracelets, lanyards, or tags. If you're looking for a great electronic check-in system, I recommend the Kidmin App.
If you have a check-in system and it's not enforced, it's pointless. Make sure your volunteers are asking to see the pick-up tag from every parent (even those they know), and really looking at the tag to make sure they match.
4. No Way to Get Ahold of Parents
When I'm visiting a church for the first time and drop my kids off in the children's ministry, I want to know the church has a way to get ahold of me if I'm needed during the service or an emergency occurs.
Solution: A great way to do this is by using numbers up on the screen (if your church uses a screen) for each family, since they will be looking up at the screen during the service (hopefully). You can buy LED boards where you can post numbers, or post them through your worship software (ProPresenter has this option). You could also use pagers. Some churches use text message or phone calls, although some parents may not look at their phones during the service.
I understand being on a tight budget and not having many volunteers, but these are things we cannot get wrong as children's ministry leaders. These are four things we need to plan for, prepare for, and train volunteers for every time we have kids (not just with new guests).
If you miss these things, not only is there a great risk for kids and volunteers, but parents who are first time guests (or regulars) may not feel comfortable and may not be able to focus on the service, and may not ever return to your church. In one of the churches I visited, I got up during the worship to go check on my kids in the children's ministry, because I was so uncomfortable and couldn't focus on worship.
There are areas we all fall short in children's ministry, but safety is a non-negotiable. These are some safety policies your church needs to consistently get right:
- Every volunteer must be background checked, screened, and trained
- At least two un-related volunteers in a room with kids
- Door with see-through window, half open, or door completely open (with a baby gate if needed)
- All kids registered at first visit; all kids checked-in by parent/guardian, and must have a matching pick-up tag to pick up the kid
- Bathroom policies must be enforced at all times; there should never be a time when a volunteer is alone in a bathroom with a a kid
If you don't have and enforce safety policies, not only is there huge liability (lawsuits) for your church, but more importantly, there is a great risk for kids. You can have the best children's ministry curriculum, the best stage and set decor, and the most fun games and prizes, but if kids aren't safe and parents aren't comfortable, they won't stay at your church. Keeping kids safe lays the foundation for you to minister to entire families.
As a parent, I know how my kids are the most precious thing in the world to me, and when I take them to a church, I'm entrusting that church to protect them and care for them. There are many dangers in this world, and while we can't prevent every possible thing from going wrong, children's ministries have a duty to intentionally be proactive about protecting kids as much as possible.
What other things does your church do to be proactive about keeping kids safe? Is there anything you would add to this list?