Southern Baptists look for ways to make churches, missions field safer place for children

Southern Baptists look for ways to make churches, missions field safer place for children

Rather than being sanctuaries of safety and well being for children, far too many churches and ministries have become sanctuaries of protection and shelter for child sexual predators.

Child abuse is a heartbreaking problem. Conservative studies indicate that 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will be sexually abused before reaching 18 years of age, according to the National Center on Child Abuse.

Because sexual predators target trusting environments where children are present, the incidence of abuse is sometimes higher in the Christian community, including churches or church-related activities, such as summer camps or church missions trips.

Even the missions field is not immune to this epidemic. The International Mission Board (IMB) has highlighted a survey of 600 missionary kids from several agencies revealing that 7 percent said they had been sexually abused.

What are Southern Baptists doing to combat this insidious assault on children? Southern Baptists’ two flagship mission agencies have policies in place to protect children from abuse. Many churches, likewise, are adopting similar policies.

IMB ‘committed to zero tolerance’

An online IMB Statement on Child Abuse and Sexual Harassment says, “The IMB is committed to zero tolerance for child abuse and sexual harassment among our personnel. Further, the IMB is committed to communicating clearly and cooperating with our partners to guard against child abuse and sexual harassment.”

In preventative and proactive measures to support their zero-tolerance commitment, the IMB conducts comprehensive background checks of personnel and volunteers serving with the missions organization, according to Julie McGowan, IMB public relations manager.

Detailed interviews are also conducted and references are collected. The IMB also provides training for its personnel and volunteers “in providing a safe and secure environment for children,” she said.

Additionally IMB uses a “two-person rule” requiring at least two adults be present in any IMB activity or ministry involving children, McGowan explained.

Still, in spite of these measures, what about the rare instance in which observed or suspected child abuse may occur?

The online statement explains that it tells “anyone in the IMB” to report observed or suspected child abuse, emphasizing, “If anyone suspects or sees something, they need to say something.” Multiple avenues are available to make these reports, according to the statement, including a confidential hotline. IMB personnel and volunteers are trained in how to report any possible abuse, McGowan added.

“Anytime there is an accusation of child abuse, IMB’s first step is to take measures to protect the child,” McGowan said. IMB is also committed to offering “compassionate care” to victims, the online statement reads.

The IMB also “strongly encourages any church, entity or other employer who is considering working with or partnering with a former IMB personnel to contact IMB to obtain a reference on that individual,” McGowan said. That can be obtained by emailing

Former IMB personnel are asked to sign a release authorizing IMB to release such information.

“In most cases, IMB will have positive information to share,” McGowan said. “However, in the rarer cases where IMB has information to share concerning child abuse or sexual misconduct by that former personnel, or the former personnel refuses to sign the release, then the church, entity or employer will be in a better position to evaluate a future relationship with that former IMB personnel.”

NAMB partners with MinistrySafe

The North American Mission Board (NAMB), like IMB, has policies in place to perform background checks on its endorsed missionaries and volunteers during the application process.

NAMB’s employee manual directs also all NAMB personnel, if they see a crime committed or if they suspect a crime has been committed while they are conducting NAMB business, to report the incident, first, to local law enforcement personnel and, second, to NAMB’s chief human resources officer.

NAMB also partners with MinistrySafe to ensure that all NAMB-endorsed missionaries, as part of their approval process, complete awareness training related to child abuse.

MinistrySafe training, according to Mike Ebert, NAMB’s executive director of public relations, “provides information to identity behaviors associated with child abuse, such as abuser characteristics; the grooming process, by which an abuser prepares a child for inappropriate sexual behavior; methods to reduce the risk; peer-to-peer abuse; what to do when a child reports abuse, impact on children and responsibility to report.”

Such training, he explained, is particularly helpful to NAMB’s church planters who are setting policies in place to safeguard children at their church plants, which are autonomous congregations.

The autonomy of Southern Baptist churches can sometimes create some holes when it comes to clear-cut policies on child safety.

Church policies expanding

Many congregations have implemented policies — such as background checks, training and automated check-in systems for children — in an attempt to curtail any potential threat to children.

Some churches partner with external organizations such as MinistrySafe for guidance in these matters. Also Protect My Ministry provides discounted rates and a streamlined online process for conducting background checks, reviewing the results and safeguarding the data.

Still, some church leaders are requesting additional assistance from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in their efforts to safeguard children. At the 2018 annual meeting of the SBC, two motions were referred to SBC entities for consideration, with a follow-up report to be presented at the 2019 annual meeting in Birmingham.

Wade Burleson of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Enid, Oklahoma, made a motion that the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission study expand resources to help churches protect themselves from sexual predators, and Phillip Bethancourt of Redemption City Church, Franklin, Tennessee, made a motion requesting a task force for helping churches protect themselves from sexual predators.

There has been some discussion in recent years of establishing an online SBC-wide database of clergy sex offenders, but such a database has not been approved.