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Safe in Church has been launched to help churches and Christian charities care for their members

Cases of abuse across all sectors have grabbed the public’s attention in recent years and the religious quarter has been no exception.

One Christian couple has recognised the bewilderment felt by many churches and faith-based organisations as they endeavour to comply with standards on protecting their vulnerable people amid subtle changes to expectations and a mood of increased intolerance and scrutiny, and they’ve decided to do something about it.

Husband and wife Paul and Sue Harrison brought together their decades of experience in the public and charity sectors, where they developed and managed services for vulnerable families and children, and leadership positions within churches, to launch Safe in Church, a programme that helps churches and faith-based organisations understand and meet the requirements of safeguarding.

The parents of four, and grandparents of seven, agreed to be interviewed by the Evangelical Alliance to discuss the current climate and how this programme, which sits under their specialist training and consultancy provider, Phasic Ltd, can help leaders avoid the pitfalls.

To allay any uncertainty, what does safeguarding actually mean? 

Safeguarding is essentially about protecting people, both children and adults, from harm and abuse and promoting their wellbeing. Although the ultimate aim of protecting the two age groups is the same, there are fundamental differences because it’s the responsibility of adults to keep children safe. Therefore, children are vulnerable due to their age.

When it comes to safeguarding adults, what we talk about is an adult who is at risk of abuse or neglect. There must be a factor that makes an adult more vulnerable, such as having care and support needs caused by a learning disability, etc. Such a disability can impede an adult’s ability to make an informed choice, thereby making them vulnerable.

For us as churches, safeguarding is not just about spotting and addressing indicators of abuse; it’s about looking for early signs and stepping in. It’s also a matter of promoting wellbeing as well as protecting from harm; this takes into account the evidence we see from outside of the church.

Describe the current climate in which churches and organisations are having to deal with safeguarding.

For a significant number of years there has been a move away from a very prescriptive approach to safeguarding. Nowadays, organisations are expected to achieve the desired outcomes, but the responsibility for deciding exactly how to achieve this is a decision for the leaders of the organisation. 

The positive side of this is that organisations can tailor their systems. The downside, however, is that it places a huge responsibility on organisations to address safeguarding effectively. Churches and faith-based organisations are essentially being told to develop effective systems. This type of local devolution’, of course, causes complications.

Added to this are historic cases of abuse across every sector of society that are being investigated. We’ve seen that organisations haven’t always effectively dealt with cases of abuse and allegations of abuse. As well as broader society, historic examples can be found in churches, youth camps and those working abroad on behalf of charities; Oxfam’s recent troubles and the case of Richard Huckle, who was convicted of numerous counts of serious sexual assaults against children while posing as a teacher, photographer and devout Christian in Malaysia, are cases in point. These incidents have shifted a perception of churches and faith-based organisations because we sometimes haven’t met the standards we proclaim.

Meanwhile, the secular and sexual rights movements have engendered a significant shift in politics and society, causing some to construe orthodox Christianity as being offensive and discriminatory. Our beliefs are based on biblical principles and, as a result, we can’t move on them, although we recognise that the views of society are changing around us. This ties in with the perception in some quarters that the expression of classical Christianity is somehow extreme’ or harmful’.

Social media is another part of the picture. These digital platforms for the creation and sharing of information and ideas are big areas for churches. But there is a risk that lines can be blurred, because interactions are taken outside of the church building, where they can be monitored and managed, and into a space with fewer boundaries. So, how do we manage social media?

These matters are potentially creating a situation that is disadvantageous to churches. There’s greater perception among the public where the risks are and there is the expectation that churches should be responding. But if you don’t know how to respond effectively, you can’t.

Tell us about Safe in Church and why churches in particular should find out more.

Phasic, a member of the Evangelical Alliance, is a specialist training and consultancy company founded and run by us. Safe in Church is a programme that has been developed by Phasic. We are safeguarding specialists who have a solid professional background, having gained a significant amount of experience working with schools, local authorities and faith-based organisations, etc. We still work in this sector, providing guidance on best practice.

As evangelical Christians, who have assumed, and still hold, leadership positions in church, we approach safeguarding as an outworking of our faith. We see safeguarding as a natural extension of our biblical principles and the gospel, as in protecting the vulnerable. We know that adhering to biblical principles will enable us to far exceed the legal requirements. Therefore, we don’t separate the two, as we know that isn’t an accurate way to view it.

Many churches and faith-based organisations do not have expertise in safeguarding, so we established Safe in Church to help these organisations reach and exceed the necessary competency levels, in an age of greater expectations and cultural changes.

Some Christians might see local authorities as a big brother’ figure who cracks a whip and we have to jump. Fortunately, both of us know the challenges and complexities, and how to break down barriers so churches can work in partnership with their local authority. There are lots of things that local authorities provide for families and we, as the church, are often just as valued as any other organisation.

Against a backdrop of legislative change many charged with safeguarding in their context often ask, how do we keep up? Due to our experience and expertise, we understand the legislation and subtle changes in guidance. Some churches read the updated guidance and understandably can’t see very clearly where those subtle changes occur. We want to help churches and faith-based organisations fully understand these changes and what is required.

And then there’s language. If there were, say, an issue at a church that was being investigated by a local authority, the church leader may rightly describe the congregation as a great big family where everyone looks after each other”. We know from experience that this vocabulary is likely to cause the local authority to question boundaries’ and believe that there was a real blurring of personal space’. Safe in Church is all about taking hold of our specialist knowledge and helping churches and faith-based organisations.

Why is it worthwhile to seek expert help?

There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s not necessarily clear to churches what they have to do, and many churches lack confidence in dealing with safeguarding. A church can read the guidance and think it’s meeting the requirements when it’s not. Additionally, many churches may miss some of the subtle nuance unless they have a specialist in their ranks. Of course, many churches and faith-based organisations successfully navigate safeguarding requirements without outside support; this is often because they have members who have specialist experience and knowledge.

We approach safeguarding from the perspective of being involved in church leadership ourselves; we have been in our church for nine years and prior to that we were in a church for 22 years, where we were involved especially in children’s work. We, therefore, understand the complexities. For example, we are well versed in dealing with very specific situations, such as integrating an ex-offender into church life, and working through the practical solutions for the sake of the gospel and the wider church.

Why should churches and faith-based organisations take safeguarding seriously?

Our biblical principles demand that we take safeguarding seriously: we are called to care for the vulnerable and weak. We’re also told to obey the authorities that God has set over to us. Additionally, local authorities have a legal duty to protect the vulnerable and work with its partners, which includes those in the voluntary sector and faith-based organisations. If we fail to comply and respond appropriately, we would not only violate national guidance or legislation, but we’d also damage the reputation of the church. So, when it comes to safeguarding, let’s go above and beyond’.

What are the consequences of a breach?

In a nutshell: local authority investigations and sanctions, legal prosecution and reputational damage. Talking specifically about reputation, one wrong move, if handled incorrectly, can bring a church or faith-based organisations into disrepute. That’s why the way a problem is handled can be as important as what has happened. For instance, dealing with an issue internally and keeping it under wraps can compound the original offence for various reasons, not least because it’ll seem as though the church or faith-based organisations in question is seeking to cover something up and condone misconduct.

Will money be a barrier for those who want to use your services?

There is cost as Safe in Church is self-financing. We aim to make the programme as affordable as we can. It’s typically more expensive for a church that is training only one or two people. For this reason, we advise that those individuals collaborate with designated safeguarding leads from other churches. 

Other cost-saving options are available; for example, if a church allows us to use its building to host a session, the host’s fee could be reduced or even waived. Separately, in due course, we intend to roll out a scheme whereby those who undergo training can train others, from their network of churches or elsewhere, helping churches and faith-based organisations become healthier places where the gospel can flourish. 

Regional safeguarding and training events

Paul and Sue are organising safeguarding training events in 10 locations around the UK for those in leadership positions in churches and faith-based organisations. They will focus on four core areas: training for designated safeguarding officers, safeguarding for leaders, train the trainer, and safe recruitment. To find out more, contact Paul and Sue on safeinchurch​.org​.uk/​c​o​n​t​a​ct-us

Swot up on safeguarding on a budget

Resources that cover the basics of safeguarding are available on Safe in Church’s website, safeinchurch​.org​.uk, enabling church members who have experience in this area, such as teachers and social workers, to obtain the information that they need at no cost. 

Webinar

A safeguarding webinar will be available on the membership area of the Evangelical Alliance’s website (eauk​.org) from July. Contact info@​eauk.​org for details.

About the author

After asking God to bless her with the right role at a God-centred organisation, Naomi joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2018 as editorial content manager. Positions with publishers and within the marketing and communications faculty of a higher education institution, plus stints as a reporter, have enabled the media and cultural studies graduate, who has an NCTJ diploma in newspaper journalism, to hone the necessary skills and qualities to serve members well.

See more from Naomi Osinnowo

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