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How to Correct Your Church Communication before Tragedy Strikes

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How to Correct Your Church Communication before Tragedy Strikes

As your partner in risk management I spend a lot of time doing research on various topics that I believe will benefit your ministry. Recently I came across an article on Church Executive  that struck a cord and prompted me to create some new policies and procedures for your ministry. I’m going to use some examples from this article, written by Crispin Ketelhut, to help explain how critical this in today’s modern ministries.

A church decides to hire a coach from the congregation for its intramural sports league’s youth softball team. It conducted an extensive screening process with professional background checks, an application process, reference checks and face to face interviews.

Once hired, the coach begins reaching out to the youth and “friends” the congregation’s teens using his personal social media accounts. A year after he was hired, Lena, one of the 15-year-old girls on the softball team, was hospitalized for attempted suicide. Her mother reviewed Lena’s cell phone and found dozens of inappropriate texts and images sent between Lena and the coach. She also discovered cyber-harassment from the coach via private messages on Lena’s social media accounts, threatening that he’d anonymously publish Lena’s compromising photos for the whole church to see. Lena’s suicide attempt was from an extreme coping response to the cyber-harassment and bullying from the coach. 

Eventually Lena’s mother sued the church for negligence, stating it was responsible and subsequently negligent in monitoring its employee and his technology devices – and that Lena’s physical, psychological and emotional trauma was entirely preventable.

I know you’re thinking, they did everything they were supposed to do, how could they be negligent?

It wasn’t what occurred during the hiring process that put the children and church at risk; it was what didn’t occur after.

Even though prior due diligence was performed, rules were never established prescribing conduct and policies weren’t written – nor were acknowledgement receipts signed and kept on file.  The coach had sole, unfettered access to the youth via the internet in intrinsically private electronic communications, without oversight or monitoring.

What should the church have done?

To protect not only the youth within their care, but also the volunteers who work with the youth and the church’s reputation and financial assets, the church should also have established the following polices:

A written communication policy that defines what is and is not appropriate communication methods for each method of communication.  I have created a sample communication policy which can be found in our Risk Management document library.

Permission Slips that denote what forms of communication are preferred by the parents when communicating with their children. If you are allowed to contact their child via email you should always CC their parents.  I strongly discourage communicating with minors via their personal cell phones. Instead I recommend you communicate via their home phone or their parent’s cell phone. In order to contact a minor via their personal cell phone, written permission from the parent must be obtained, and the parent included in all communications via group text.  This communication consent form can also be found in our documents library.

Checks and Balances. We live in an age of social media and most people belong to at least one platform. Many churches have created their own facebook page, and even created sub pages for their youth ministries. These systems are great for spreading announcements and event information to large audiences simultaneously. However, under no circumstances should an adult use their personal account to “friend” or contact individual youth group members. This opens up the door to private communications which cannot be monitored. Instead, create a Youth Group page for your ministry. You can set up multiple youth group leaders as “editors” on that account.  Your teens can follow the page, receive notifications of events/status updates and communicate via that page. In this scenario it is a public platform of communication because multiple adults have access to the information being shared and conversation being had.

I recommend you gather up the parents of the youth and your workers for a quick after church meeting in which you are going to do three things.

1.       1. Have every person who attends the meeting sign in. (This is your proof of them receiving the materials)

2.      2.  Distribute a communication policy to every youth worker explaining these are the new guidelines they are to follow.

3.      3.  Distribute a communication consent form to every parent. They will then select which forms of communication they approve of.

This helps both parties to be on the same page of what your ministry has deemed appropriate communication. After the meeting I would create a spreadsheet with each child’s name and their approved form of contact. I would distribute a “cheat sheet” to every youth worker so they know exactly how to contact the individual.

 

Churches can’t always prevent bad situations. But, we can at least create a safer environment where, ultimately, risk is lessened because acceptable behavior and expectations are clearly stated, and there’s less opportunity for grooming/bad actions to occur.

 

 

Clients: To download the Communications Policy & Consent form please visit our library. Simple log-in on the home screen. If you do not have an account, click the register button. From there select the Ministry Risk Management Tab at the top of the page and select Risk Management Documents. Scroll down to the Risk Transfer section and once selected each document will automatically download. 

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Welcome to our Risk Management Minute Blog! My name is Jessica and I joined the First Insurance Group team in 2008. I began working in the Church Division in 2009 and as part of my job began to learn about the specific needs Churches face in regards to Risk Management. We have made it our goal to not only supply you with relevant information, but to take the work out of risk management by creating forms for you to print and use. Have questions on a topic we have yet to cover? Let me know! I will gladly do the research and provide any information I can.

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