by Kathy Neufeld Dunn, Associate Conference Minister (Kansas-Based)
The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus saying, as he commissions the Twelve for mission, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10.16). I can think of no greater innocent than a child or frail elder. They are the most vulnerable in our congregations. As we welcome newcomers and seekers into our midst in our congregations, we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” on behalf of those most in need of our protection. One of these newcomers, or even one of our own longtime members, might be a predator. (For counsel on how to minister to sexual predators, please see http://dovesnest.net/sites/default/files/Protection_and_Inclusion.pdf.)
We don’t like to think about it, but for the sake of these “little ones,” we must. FaithTrust Institute estimates that one out of every three girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. One in seven youth internet users has received unwanted sexually explicit solicitations online. 72% of teens believe online abuse should be discussed, according to the US Justice Department. When it comes to vulnerable elders, statistics are harder to obtain, but some experts estimate as many as 6% of our elderly population have experienced some form of exploitation (often financial or physical) in a trust relationship. We may say, “That doesn’t happen in our church,” but our own media tells a different story. J Ron Byler of MCC notes, “These numbers are true in both faith communities and the general population,” (“We Will Speak Out Against Sexualized Violence,” MCC, June 2, 2016).
In many of our congregations, we have Safe Sanctuary policies, policies that guide how we will protect children and youth in our congregations from sexual predators. Yet, these policies assume that such potential abusers will be on-site in our church buildings. Today they may be onlline, as well, and still dangerous. Joy Thornburg Melton and Michelle L. Foster wrote a book that can help congregations appropriately update our Safe Sanctuaries policies to protect our children and youth in the digital age. Safe Sanctuaries in a Virtual World is available in our WDC Resource Library for check out. It includes chapters on internet and the law, pornography online, social media, and other ministry contexts, like church camp and college campuses, where children go for church-sponsored events. This is a crucial supplement to the Safe Sanctuaries resources already available.
If you or someone you know speaks Spanish as a first language, please note that the original Safe Sanctuaries book is now available in Spanish. Santuarios Seguros is available in the WDC Resource Library for your use.
Another new Safe Sanctuaries resource available in the library addresses the tragedy of elder abuse: Safe Sanctuaries: The Church Responds to Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of Older Adults. As with other Safe Sanctuaries resources, this book includes theology, diagnosing the problem, steps for implementing a safety plan as part of the broader ministry of the church, all for the sake of older, vulnerable adults.
Though it is not easy to learn about and address these difficult topics, when we do, we can become “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” as we share the gospel in our contexts.