I can’t say when last I’d heard that word. I heard it now in response to a question to friend around the “one thing” – the proverbial silver bullet – I should keep in mind to make a success of ministry in Ireland. He is a minister in the Methodist Church of England but I thought contexts are similar enough to warrant the question. I’m a romantic for sure: I’ve been in ministry over twenty years and I still believe there is a single thing that can be done to make it work; rather than a (proven) million things to make it fail. I wasn’t prepared for his response: safeguarding.
Safeguarding is a BIG thing here, I cannot over-emphasize this. He continued: “Don’t have meetings without recording what happened. Don’t meet alone with anyone, and NEVER with a woman. Take someone with you. Oh, and you cannot, CAN-NOT, be alone with a child. There must always be someone with you, another adult.”I was hoping for something new, a vanguard ministry tool, instead I received a lesson in legislation tinged with paranoia. You cannot be too careful.
I suspect this is in part, part and parcel of the fallout of the paedophilia scandal that has engulfed Catholicism and, well, all of Christianity really. A day doesn’t seem to go by here without an article in the paper recounting yet another sordid … The sin of this is so dark I can’t find myself looking at it directly – priests, children, sex abuse. The church is in a tailspin and I don’t know if we’ll survive it on this continent. I’m not sure it deserves to. The Catholic churches relatively mum and glum response to the continued doesn’t help.
Is lament even enough? It’s also a laudable and Kingdom-principle ideal of protecting the most vulnerable among us. It makes sense then that churches should sport (as I imagine all institutions do) a policy commitment to Child Protection. It all makes perfect sense.
“You can’t be too careful.” This is a problem; I don’t have a long and distinguished history of care-full ministry. My history is of the short and patchy, shoot-from-the-hips-while-backing-out-the-door variety. He continued, “I was in a class and a girl came to the board and was messing around and I gently tapped her on the hand and she yelped, ’That’s abuse!’” I could sense the tremor that ran through that encounter come through the telephone line as he recounted the event.
We attended a BBQ held by one of our churches on Sunday afternoon. Though still on leave Mary, Erin, and I attended to make acquaintances and re-enforce already established friendships. The property is big and, in a moment, I decided to accompany another couple, with Erin in tow, as we explored the landscape – we made our way across a small stream along a path to a quaint little windy house at the far end of the property. This proved a win for Erin as that little house held children’s toys. She became engrossed, the other couple was itching to leave, permission was granted as I said I would return once Erin’s interest in… had run dry.
No sooner had they left than two young girls’ voices could be heard along the creek from the bottom of the property. After brief sojourn on a slightly rusted slide they made their way up to us. I thought nothing of it. Until my friend’s words floated into my mind. I thought, “Andrew, you’re alone with two slightly cheeky, rambunctious nine year olds with over-active imaginations; your only companion is a child short of two years old who specialises in alternating two words “ouchy” and “mommy”, neither of which would serve you well on a witness stand. You are not safe here.
I smiled, hurriedly packed up the toys, and informed the two girls we would be returning to the party. I moved post-haste, Erin under arm, along the path to the house. The girls, unbelievably, lost interest in the wendy house once we’d left and tracked us along the path. I heard their sing-song voices behind me; one child had crossed the river and was beetling along the opposite bank like a hunter about to cut the prey at the pass. These voices these thoughts, these children in the grassy knoll… the whole thing had a Children of the Corn feel to it.
We got home, Erin and I, safely without any hint or report of foul play. Before this, while speaking to friends, I mentioned my concern about “safeguarding” and the sense of vulnerability it was birthing within me, that is, ministerailly speaking, unhelpful. He recounted a story of a child who walked into a tent while on holiday. It was not her tent and the other occupant of that tent – an adult male – having just showered, was pulling up his briefs. The youg girl saw him naked. Only later, once the holiday was over, did the girl confide to her parents that their friend had “shown his big willy” to her.
This was not true. He was pulling up his pants, not down, and thankfully, they were not alone- thankfully he had my friend as a witness. A minor detail of pants up and pants down might seem incidental to a child, and the inaccuracy of it an innocent witticism, but for an adult its the difference between an unfortunate incident and relational, vocational, or, for that matter, literal suicide.
You. Can’t. Be. Too. Careful. Try growing a ministry with that as your breastplate motto.