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Culture

A Shield about You

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October 4th, 2009

Innovation is a needed and welcome trait in youth workers. We’ve developed the reputation for playing outside the box, coloring outside the lines. But that entrepreneurial spirit means that sometimes we take risks—and that sometimes we act before we think. Unfortunately, it also means that sometimes we don’t believe the rules apply to us.

Jack Crabtree, youth worker and author of Better Safe than Sued (Group) has this to say: “The risk of being a youth leader in North America has increased greatly in the past 10 years. While the value of each young life has remained priceless, the legal and monetary damages involved have skyrocketed. The youth leader who overlooks the crucial role of safety in his or her ministry risks substantial losses in ministry opportunities, relationships, reputation, time, and finances.”

But the good news is that thinking ahead can help manage some of the risks you take as a youth worker. The following is a simple checklist that can assist you in avoiding unnecessary risks. One caveat: Develop a working relationship with a lawyer and an insurance carrier! Get familiar with your local and state laws—especially as they apply to teens, churches, and organizations. It’s a good idea to run all forms, contracts, and paperwork for major events through a lawyer, preferably one that specializes in religious, charitable, or not-for-profit organizations.

A common mindset among youth workers is, “It’ll never happen to me.” Common, that is, until it does. And what is it? An angry confrontation with a parent. A lawsuit. A “requested resignation.” Thinking ahead can help circumvent the possibility of these things happening to you.

Permission Slips

These need to go beyond parents merely okaying their children to participate in an activity. They’re also medical-release forms—they allow doctors to treat students who get sick or are injured. Although they don’t free you from ultimate responsibility, they do show that you took preventative, thoughtful steps. Check with a lawyer to see how long after an event you should file your permission slips. (It’s usually one to three years.)

Warning: Don’t allow students to participate in an excursion with only “verbal permission.” If you’re tempted to do this, just imagine what you’d tell hospital staff when they need to treat injured students, and you don’t know how to reach the parents for permission.

The permission slip itself should include phone numbers where parents can be reached in emergencies and alternate numbers. The more the merrier—cell phones, pagers, et cetera. I’ve taken numerous students to emergency rooms with everything from dislocated fingers to potential head injuries. In almost every case, I had to call the alternate number in order to locate a parent or guardian.

Insurance

Don’t assume that because you’re a church employee or on church grounds or on a church-sponsored ministry event that you’re covered by the church’s insurance policy. Find out what your organization’s insurance policy covers. Ask questions like, “If a student gets injured on a retreat, who pays? The parent, the camp, the church?” “If we rent a van for a missions trip, who’s the primary insurance carrier?”

One youth worker I know told me that she assumed her church was the primary insurer for the van she had rented. Nope! Turns out that if she had been in an accident, she would’ve been held responsible.

If you’re planning a high-risk activity (e.g., rock climbing), you’ll need to check with your insurance carrier to see if additional coverage is needed.

If your event will be at a location other than the church, you need to have a Certificate of Insurance. According to Paula Hensel, former financial advisor at Willow Creek Community Church, “Many people planning events aren’t even aware of what a Certificate of Insurance is! It’s required by many facilities to prove that the church or organization has its own liability insurance. This certificate has to be separately produced for each individual event and facility. They aren’t stock items kept in church business offices. They have to be requested—usually by whoever handles insurance in the church—from the church’s insurance agency.”

Vehicles

Always remember to check the age restriction your insurance company may have set for those who operate church-owned vehicles. If the policy states all drivers must be at least 21, obviously your youth group members shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a church-owned van—no matter how slowly it putters around!

In fact, some insurance companies now check the driving records of people who’re designated as church-vehicle operators. I was amazed to find that one of our key small group leaders had a series of speeding tickets, and our insurance company wouldn’t allow her to operate a church vehicle. Besides the obvious insurance risk, I also realized we were putting students’ lives in potential danger by letting this person drive.

Contracts

For many of us, reading Greek or Hebrew is a breeze compared to interpreting a contract. And then we mistakenly assume that the facility we’re negotiating with (or the band or speaker’s agent) has our best interests in mind. Wrong-o. They’re trying to protect their interests and to negotiate the best deal they can. So when it comes to planning large events off-site—especially at a hotel—you should consider using a professional meeting planner. Good meeting planners know just how to service their clients and can even help protect you from falling unnecessarily into debt if you have to cancel your retreat or event.

Because meeting planners work for several clients, they can also negotiate better prices for you. Consult a meeting planner (and a lawyer) before signing a contract.

Copyrights

If you use song sheets, transparencies, slides, movies, videos, or other created works in your ministry, you need to make sure that you’ve obtained proper permission to use the materials.

A good place to start is the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) Web site at www.ccli.com.

Finances

Tiger McLuen, a fellow youth ministry educator and speaker, has said that in the first year out of college, a youth worker will literally handle more cash than any other new graduate. Think about it! All the money that floats around for retreats, mission trips, fundraisers, and camps. You know what I’m talking about. Which is why you’ll understand why you need to be under a system of financial accountability.

“Aside from the sexual immorality of its leaders, a church’s fall is most likely to come from mishandling financial matters,” Hensel advises. “Of course, getting receipts for any church money you spend is very important, as is responsible handling of any money you may have collected for an event. Reimbursement checks to church leaders don’t look very good without receipts to back them up—and neither does the disappearance of large amounts of unaccounted-for money.” So make sure you don’t put off turning in receipts or depositing money. And request honorarium and payment checks far enough in advance so they can be processed in time—not two hours before you’re scheduled to begin and the church treasurer is trying to go home.

Games

Mud football, spaghetti wars in the narthex, “Honey, If You Love Me,” Chubby Bunny. All fun games. And all can get you into trouble.

Some are a danger to kids, others are a danger to property. Some place students in awkward and embarrassing—and sometimes compromising—positions.

What was considered humorous in youth ministry 20 years ago can get you into a serious predicament today. But it’s difficult to say no to students who’re begging to run around the car in the middle of an intersection.

Personnel

While good volunteers will provide invaluable services to youth ministries, we must choose them wisely. Poor choices can destroy everything. Here are some components to the hiring process you might want to study or revamp:

1. The application. Beyond the typical data (name, employer, education, et cetera) other information the applicant should provide includes:

• All the ministries for which the applicant has served, to whom the applicant reported, and why the applicant left those positions. (You want to avoid a volunteer with a track record for hopping from church to church, ministry to ministry.)

• A background check. Has the applicant ever been rightly or wrongly accused of child abuse or neglect? Has the applicant ever been arrested or convicted of anything more serious than a traffic violation? Will the applicant grant you permission to contact appropriate government agencies in order to determine if the applicant would be suitable to oversee adolescents?

• Character references—at least three—in writing. Include a place on the form where a reference can indicate if he or she wishes to talk with you about the applicant. I’ve found that people are frequently hesitant to put anything negative in writing—but open up in person.

2. The interview. You or a trusted team member should interview each applicant.

If you give the okay for the applicant to serve as a volunteer, keep all applications and interview notes on file for at least as long as the person is involved your ministry—if not longer.

How far should you go in screening potential volunteers? Crabtree states, “The law wants to know if an organization has taken reasonable and consistent steps to obtain information that will help predict any potential dangerous behavior by an employee (volunteers too)…reasonable actionmeans following any leads or concerns a person’s initial application might generate. If an applicant says he has been convicted of a criminal offense, the reasonable action is to find out the details of that situation. If he says he hasn’t and there is no contradicting evidence to raise suspicion, the process should not go any further.”

Essentials

Every ministry needs certain “dos and don’ts” in writing—and they should be revisited and reevaluated annually. Essentials to consider? Clarifying what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate touching; explaining what is suitable discipline (e.g., never shame the student, never use physical punishment, never discipline in public); describing unacceptable activities (e.g., R-rated—perhaps even PG-13-rated—movies, group-sponsored lock-ins with only one leader in attendance); any personal behavior standards you expect from the team.

Relationships

A reason many of us get into youth ministry is because we enjoy building relationships with students. Here are four crucial things to keep in mind when working with them:

1. Confidentiality. Define your limits. Never promise students you won’t tell their secrets to anyone else. If students demonstrate they’ll harm themselves or others, you must take immediate action. Make sure you have at your disposal a network of licensed counselors who you can call and to whom you can refer students—and from whom you can receive advice.

2. Mandated reporting. Each state has its own set of laws that deal with clergy confidentiality (e.g., reporting suspected child abuse to authorities). Whether or not you’re required by law to report an abuse situation, it’s always a good idea to consult a licensed therapist to see what action would be the most appropriate depending on the circumstance you encounter.

3. Liability. Because you’re counseling students, whether formally or informally, check with your lawyer and your insurance carrier to see if you need to carry liability insurance that relates specifically to counseling.

4. Boundaries. Here are some things you’ve no doubt heard before, but they always bear repeating.

When working with students of the opposite sex, make sure your one-on-one meetings are in public or visible places. And never agree to drive home a student of the opposite sex unless you’re accompanied by another person.

I’ll never forget hearing a youth worker tell me how he broke this “rule” and was accused of raping a female student! Although the senior pastor believed the youth worker, he was removed from any contact with students until the case was preparing to go court—and only then did the student admit she had fabricated her accusations.

When all is said and done—when all the legal, ethical, and moral standards are in place and running—the ultimate goal isn’t merely to protect ourselves and our reputations. The ultimate goal is to remain worthy of the trust that parents have placed in us to care for their kids. And it’s up to us to keep and nourish that trust.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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