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By H. Robert Showers, Esq.

Small Groups are really important in today’s churches for many theological, practical, and marketing reasons. These programs are promoted as a great way to get connected with others in the church on a more personal level. Getting to know fellow church members can pose a challenge if one attends services just once per week, particularly in sizeable church congregations. Small Groups provide a certain accountability and allow for community and involvement on a more intimate level. These groups have various formats. Sometimes they come together to discuss sermons, fellowship over meals, volunteer in the community, etc. It often makes participants operate as though they are involved in a sort of “church family.” Though they are involved in different activities, these groups normally meet in someone’s home, typically the group leader or host member.

Small Groups are generally advertised by the church on its website, in bulletins, and from the pulpit as the pastor encourages participation for spiritual growth and encouragement. Often, the pastor or one of his assistants will even form a guide for discussion based on the sermon each week. Though the church is heavily involved in marketing and providing resources for these groups, there is often is very little oversight by church leadership. So, what happens when something goes awry in the Small Group? What happens if child abuse occurs in the home during a small group function? Who is liable and how does the Church and Small Group address the situation? This article will focus specifically on ways that churches and their Small Groups can best protect the children within their care in the context of a Small Group gathering.

The first legal consideration which must be addressed is whether the small group is under the church or independent from the church in leadership, curriculum, and structure. This decision will drive the liability issues but not the child protection issues. When a Small Group meets, one important consideration that must be made is how to provide childcare. Of course, one option is to make it an “adults only” meeting time, which would require that parents find their own childcare for the evening, outside the home of the Small Group host. However, this is an option which some groups would find untenable, especially if the host and most of the attendees have children. As such, often the group will have a volunteer, perhaps a teen, supervise the children in another room of the host’s house. If the church sponsors the small group as part of its ministry, this presents a serious liability to churches and group hosts as well as a significant risk to children attending.

Church attendees tend to trust fellow churchgoers’ integrity without question. In the era of #ChurchToo, it is increasingly evident that this kind of trust has been misplaced and has led to much abuse and heartache. Even when a risk is exposed, the church far too often opts for a misunderstood concept of grace and forgiveness which sacrifices the safety and well-being of the “least” among them. However, churches must learn to implement a careful grace which both protects the vulnerable and provides a gospel-soaked environment for the offender within the boundaries that due diligence and love for its neighbor requires. Practically, this looks like the gospel imperative to be “as wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

In order to be wise and harmless, the church must implement safe-guards to protect the congregation under its care. Implementing and adhering to a Child Protection Policy is one of the first and most important steps that the church can take toward this end. See our blog for useful articles on child protection, such as this one and this one. MinistrySafe is another useful resource for articles on the subject. A church with Small Groups should consider enforcing the Child Protection Policy within every Small Group that it endorses as a part of its ministry. Small Group leaders/hosts would have to sign said policy and agree to adhere, in order to be sponsored by the church.

Some basic elements of a Child Protection Policy include:

  • Background checks, training, and references for volunteer childcare providers;
  • A two-adult rule, which requires that two peers be in the room with children at all times;
  • The requirement that the childcare providers go get the parents/guardians if the child needs to use the restroom;
  • The requirement that the children be kept in as public a location as possible, avoiding bedrooms, and preferably meeting in rooms with windows, etc.

A Child Protection Policy is one of the most basic, yet most important, places to begin in seeking to create a safe environment for children and liability protection for churches. Our firm creates these policies for churches regularly and would welcome the opportunity to assist your church in tailoring one to your needs.

In addition to implementing and adhering to a Child Protection Policy, here are a few other considerations for church leadership, in order to provide the safest environment possible for the children in their congregations:

  • Provide a mandatory training session for Small Group leaders.
    • When an individual or family expresses interest in starting a Small Group, the church should require that the Small Group leaders attend a church sponsored sexual abuse and child protection course in order to equip them to recognize the signs and foster a safe environment in their homes for the children in attendance. This should be a requirement in order for the church to sponsor and affiliate with the Small Group.
    • In many church child protection programs, there is online training where a certificate must be obtained once you pass the course.
  • Be sure that church attendees known to be convicted sex offenders are revealed to the congregation and protections and safeguards are taken for the children and former sex offender.
    • Our firm’s article on “Successful Church Assimilation of Sex Offenders” provides guidance for churches on how to safely minister to sex offenders, while also protecting the vulnerable within the congregation. Please feel free to reach out to us to discuss your questions on how to lawfully conduct this tricky yet crucial ministry.
  • Be sure to include a statement on Small Group bulletins and websites to the effect that any Small Group not listed is operating independently of church leadership and is unaffiliated with the church, even if its members are involved or leading said group. In so doing, the church separates itself from liability if something were to happen within a Small Group that did not follow the church’s safety guidelines. Brotherhood Mutual offers a helpful distinction between Church-Authorized and Independent Small Groups.
  • The church should consider contacting their insurance agent to see if Small Groups are covered, or can be covered, under the church insurance. Some insurance companies offer this option, which would protect homeowners who host Small Groups from having to rely on their homeowner insurance, should something happen on their home premises. Brotherhood Mutual is one example.

These are a few crucial steps that church leadership can take in considering the least in their congregation, and to provide the most protection within their power. Some of these steps include: 1) a Child Protection Policy, 2) background and reference checks for all workers with children, 3) due diligence in obtaining insurance coverage, 4) training Small Group leaders especially in knowing the signs of abuse and “grooming”, and 5) making sure that parents and guardians are duly notified of any and all known convicted sex offenders in the congregation. Steps taken in the healing and assimilation of sex offenders into the church body are relatively simple steps that churches can take toward protecting themselves from liability, and most importantly, can make all the difference in the life of a child.

Please call our firm today for advice in implementing policies and practices that protect children and your congregation within a Small Group setting.

Disclaimer: This memorandum is provided for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice particular to your situation. No recipients of this memo should act or refrain from acting solely on the basis of this memorandum without seeking professional legal counsel. Simms Showers LLP expressly disclaims all liability relating to actions taken or not taken based solely on the content of this memorandum. We greatly appreciate the contributions to this article by Bethany R. Horvat, our Nonprofit/Church Certified Paralegal. Please contact H. Robert Showers, Esq. at hrs@simmsshowerslaw.com for legal advice that will meet your specific needs.

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