It’s not fun or easy to talk about, and yet it’s potentially one of the most important things to address as a ministry leader: How do you protect your youth ministry from legal action? In this episode we’re joined by leaders Candice Wynn, Tom Shefchunas, and Dr. Darren Kizer to discuss the realities of the world we live in today and some of the steps we can take to keep our students safe and protect our ministries from potential lawsuits and legal action.
The following episode is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not rely or act on any information in this episode without seeking counsel from a qualified professional authorized to provide specific legal advice in your jurisdiction.
- An introduction to Darren Kizer (0:39)
- Tell us about a time where you were worried about a lawsuit (2:32)
- What are some areas in ministry we need to be aware where trouble could come? (11:52)
- 12:42: “As soon as you put out a flyer and invite kids to your ministry, you’re held to the highest standard of care.” –Darren Kizer
- What are the filters you use to balance the tension of what’s fun and what’s unwise? (14:37)
- 17:34: “Asking the question, ‘What could go wrong?’ will help you mitigate problems before they happen.” –Darren Kizer
- 27:27: “A lot of churches are just saying ‘no’ to trips or events. But those things are really important, so we need to talk about wise ways to do them.” –Tom Shefchunas
- What are some things that we need to be doing on our side as leaders to protect our students and adults from becoming a negative news story? (28:44)
- 31:21: “Never get in a place where you don’t feel right about a situation or volunteer, but keep going forward because feel like you have to. You don’t have to.” –Tom Shefchunas
- 31:53: “We have to get comfortable exercising our personal authority and responsibility to ask some people not to hang out around our students.” –Candice Wynn
- How do we create environments where we value vulnerability and having adults invest in teenagers while still protecting both at the same time? (35:22)
- 36:32: “To protect our students and have a healthy ministry, we have to have systems that help us develop ongoing, personal relationships with our volunteers.” –Brett Talley
- Any last thoughts for people listening? (43:32)
– Hey, what’s up everybody? Thanks for hanging out with us today. I am Brett and I am so excited to be hanging out with a few of my friends. We have Tom “Shef” Shefchunas.
– Hey everybody.
– We have Candice Austin Kelly Chante Daniels Wynn.
– Hey Brett.
– Did I get them all?
– I didn’t?
– But it’s okay.
– You’ve got a lot of middle names.
– Legally just one.
– Recreationally multiple.
– And then for the very first time on the podcast we have the tall, the handsome, the wonderful Dr. Darren Kizer, everybody.
– Well thank you, thank you glad to be here.
– So Darren, your first time on the podcast. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
– Yeah, so Colorado, California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, now Atlanta. So that’s kind of where I’ve been. And I’ve been able to work with a bunch of different ministries over the years from wilderness leadership organizations and canoe trips and backpacking trips, and director of a camp, and family ministries pastor. And now here with Orange, helping out with strategic initiatives and academics.
– Very cool, and if you’re curious, Darren is at the top of my list that if something ever happens at Orange where it’s like the apocalypse and I need somebody who’s resourceful, Darren’s at the top of my list of the first people I’m going to go and I’m going to search for and just do whatever Darren’s doing. ‘Cause I’m one of those people that if that happens and we have to start living off the land, I’m done.
– Are you a doomsday prepper?
– No, I would not consider myself a prepper.
– Because he’s already ready. And there’s no preparation necessary.
– I did make it through Y2K, though.
– As did I.
– As did we all.
– Not all, I did meet plenty of people who did not make it through Y2K.
– Okay, so we have the honor, the privilege, and the joy of being able to talk about what it’s like to avoid lawsuits in your ministry. So this episode’s probably going to get really fun, lots of joy when it comes to how do we avoid lawsuits in our ministry? But we’ve all probably been there at times where there are moments in ministry where something’s happening and we’re kind of like white-knuckled and gritting our teeth, and really hoping we avoid the lawsuit that could come from a certain situation. So I would love to hear any stories that you guys have from your ministry time that was sort of one of those situations where you’re like I hope this doesn’t end in a lawsuit. Or kind of one of those legally gray as it’s happening you’re like hm, this maybe wasn’t the best choice that I’ve made so far this year.
– Well I have one and it wasn’t necessarily–
– Only one?
– She was a really good pastor.
– I was, and I’m filled with lots of great wisdom. I’ve always exercised it. But no, it wasn’t necessarily a decision that I made, but you know we just to take, one church I was serving at, my very, very first church. And I took about three seniors who were graduating high school out to eat. And I had to stop at the ATM to get some cash. I don’t know why I had to stop at the ATM. Debit cards were pretty popular, but like CashApp and pay with your phone, I don’t know what I needed cash for. So I stopped at the ATM and I didn’t drive up through it. I pulled up and I got out the car. And I’m at the ATM, my car’s running. One of the students jumps in the driver’s seat and drives off with my car. Comes back about maybe 10 minutes later. Leaves me there, my phone’s on the inside of the car, and I’m just going berzerk standing outside of this Bank of America, right? They come back and they said, we went to Dairy Queen. We wanted to get you a banana split to say thank you. You could have said thank you another way.
– But they needed cash?
– I used probably some words that I shouldn’t have. But I don’t even like banana splits, you all.
– [Brett] Did you tell them in the moment?
– I’m sure I did.
– [Darren] Very clearly.
– I’m sure I did, but that could have ended really badly, you know what I mean? Because you have high school seniors have not been driving that long. And they just took my car, a car they’re not familiar with driving. It could have gone pretty south, you know? I didn’t tell their parents because I was scared.
– I heard two things as you were talking that are kind of themes. One is when you said first church or first ministry. And I think that’s a reality that when we are in our first ministry, the first time leading something we just don’t have the context, the background, the experience to even know what’s maybe wise or not.
– Maybe your brain’s not developed yet, too.
– Depending on age. But then the second theme I picked up on is this idea of fear. I think so often fear is driving some of our poor decisions that we’re afraid to have that conversation with a parent because they’re scary. Or we’re afraid of how the students are going to respond if we make an unpopular, but wise decision. So I think fear is also one of those themes.
– For sure, Shef, you got a good story?
– Well I’ve got to go back to my education days. I mean I have 10 I can think of from youth ministry. And I think all good youth ministers, it’s a sign that you’re a good youth minister if you’re gritting your teeth going uh-oh, because you’re pushing and you should be pushing. But you know, in the old days we used to have marksmanship and archery in P.E. class, and the last archery class we ever had– And this was the P.E. teacher was super responsible about it. And what he did was he figured there’s no way they can mess this up. So he took them kind of back behind the giant athletic building which was sitting on top of a hill. So since this is a video podcast we’ll do this. So the athletic building is sitting here. It’s like three or four stories high. Then there’s this grassy knoll. Then he puts the archery down here.
– Grassy knoll?
– So even if you miss super high you’re just going to hit a brick wall.
– Don’t challenge them.
– No, that went great except for the fact that there were a couple of kids who thought they were going to launch arrows up onto the roof of it. But the problem was is that it was so high that the power it took what they thought was going up onto the roof was actually clearing the corner of the building, going over the roof, and then going over the other side of the building which happens to be the elementary school program.
– Oh my goodness.
– So during recess if you can imagine–
– Incoming fire.
– An elementary school teacher.
– Are you kidding?
– No, this is a real story.
– Like for real not like the marshmallow tift? These are like arrows.
– You remember the war movies where they launch the arrows in the air? That’s what it was.
– Did anybody get hurt?
– On the elementary school playground. No, however the high school principal’s youngest child was the closest to getting hit. So yeah, that were some expulsions that day.
– [Candice] The high school principal, you said?
– Yeah, that was anyway it was high school kids. It was great, it was bad. It’s as great story now because nobody did get hurt. But then they were giving out bows and arrows to the staff later because it was the last time we ever did that.
– Your bonus this week.
– Yes, that’s right.
– Back to what you said, Darren, about first churches. So the first church that I was at all the students were begging for a lock-in. And I was young and didn’t want to be, wanted to win some students over because it was pretty early there. So I was like all right we’ll do a lock-in. We put a sign up for the lock-in outside of the youth room and left it out for a few weeks. We had like 35, 40 people signed up for it. So had some adults that were signed up for it. But apparently, on the day of word got out in the middle school and the high school that the First Church of God across the street from the schools was doing a lock-in. And like 130 people showed up for the lock-in and I had like four adults that were planning on staying. Way more adults ended up coming and helping out. But I probably walked 30,000 miles over the course of the next 12 hours just walking into rooms, out of rooms. Making sure that there was nobody impregnating anybody or doing anything that they’re not supposed to be doing. Just scared to death at any point in the next week that I’m going to get a phone call of what just happened? What did you let happen?
– Oh man, my first I was a camp counselor up in Michigan and this kid was just driving me nuts. So I handcuffed him to a dumpster. And I was so nervous on Saturday when the parents come to pick up their kids. I’m like what if he–
– [Darren] Had you let him off since then? Was he still?
– Your son’s in the back.
– I realized that handcuffing him to a dumpster was inappropriate. So then I handcuffed him to a dumbbell to slow him down. So he had to carry this like 20-some pound dumbbell around because he was just driving me loony. So it slowed him down. I was really nervous about the parents picking him up. But you don’t think about it in the moment because it seemed really bright in the moment. But my favorite phone call I got was a friend who had been on a wilderness trip with me. And during that time we had gone rock climbing, rappelling. And he calls me around Halloween and asked for where can I buy a good rope? So I’m like what do you need a good rope for? And really what he was asking is if he could borrow one of the climbing ropes, which never. So I’m like what do you need it for? He said well we’re going to do extreme bobbing for apples. Like what does that mean? Well we’re going to have the kids, we’re going to tie their hands behind their back. Then we’re going to tie the rope to their ankles. Then their friends are going to pull them up via a tree branch over a barrel of water with apples in it. Then they’re going to lower ’em down into the barrel to bob for apples. And I’m like dude.
– My ropes will have no part of this.
– I was like I wouldn’t tell him where to buy a rope or get a rope. You can’t do this.
– Did he do it?
– No, I think I talked him out of it. But the whole plan was like all the things that could go wrong. Is he going to be drowning or just crippled? Which is the one that we’re going to focus on?
– Oh mercy.
– So if it’s not clear already, I just want to make it crystal clear that we’re not lawyers. There is not official legal advice that is happening in this episode. But we just want to have a little bit of a conversation, laugh a little bit about how dumb some of the mistakes that we’ve probably made in ministry have been. But also have some broader conversations of just the reality of the world that we do ministry in right now. It’s a very personal business if we want to call it a business. But it’s a very personal thing that opens us up to a lot of vulnerabilities, especially when we talk about volunteers and all the different kinds of things we’re going to talk about. So there is no legal advice that is going to withhold a jury’s evidence in a court of the law. But we’re just going to have some conversation that hopefully gets you thinking about some specific things and where are we safe and maybe where are we not safe? And we need to rethink some pieces in our ministry when it comes to making sure we’re protecting our students, protecting our leaders, protecting our community, all of those different pieces. So as we get going in the conversation I’d love to start with what do you feel like kind of are the areas of ministry that we need to be aware of that if we’re not careful and intentional could get us into some trouble?
– So one of the ways I think we get into trouble some of the time is that we see something happening in society, at Disney, on TV, Survivor, different things. We’re like oh that would make a fantastic–
– That would be great.
– Exactly, and then we do our best to mimic that experience so that we can have a great experience for our students.
– Without the production team, without the safety team, without the trials.
– Yeah and that’s the challenge is that we try to do what’s being done there. But we haven’t put into place and from a legal point of view we’re held to some different standards. And the one is this status of invitee. And as soon as you put out a flyer, so if you hang a flyer outside your building, if you put out a thing on Instagram and say come. Anytime you invite kids you’re held to the highest standard of care, the same standard of care that Disney, the World Series, the Super Bowl, whatever. And all of those experiences they’ve thought it through. They have things in place, they have ambulances, they have first responders, they have security. They have all of these things in place. Where we get ourselves into trouble is we’re trying to do it on $18 resources and what you can find at Dollar General around the corner from the church. So then we end up having an incident because we’re not in that same scenario. I think the mimicking and the trying to do without the resources puts us in a really bad spot sometimes.
– Yeah, those grit your teeth times for me I feel like often happened in those games that I knew there was a higher tendency for injury. We did this thing called the Race which was this big thing that we kicked off the fall. We had two games that we did every year. One was like this big inner tube thing where there were four teams, they lined up in a big square around these giant tractor inner tubes that were blown up. And baby oil and dish soap so they’re really slippery. And we just say go, and all the teams just converge. And they’re supposed to pull them all back. It’s a blast, all the kids loved it and I got scared every single year, somebody’s going to break a leg, somebody’s going to dive into each other. We had another one where they have to pass through this grid and they’re passing people over through those things. And I’m always just like walking around just trying to catch people and so scared. So to me there is that tension that we have to balance between what’s unwise and what’s a little bit risky, but probably is going to be fine and could be a great overall experience? So what are the best ways when it comes to making those kinds of decisions for activities for games to avoid some serious injury? How do we do that? What are those filters?
– I think one of them is just not creating in silo or in a vacuum. Running whatever it is you’re thinking about doing through the lens of someone else’s perspective, point of view, judgment, all of that. A lot of times youth pastors don’t necessarily collaborate well either with other youth pastors, or might not necessarily include volunteers in the planning process like we really could, and get in trouble.
– Before hand.
– Yeah, before hand.
– I think it’s important to practice. Like hosting a game a lot of times is harder than speaking, for instance. And there are so many variables going on during a game and just picking volunteers and things like that. I remember one game we had where the two people were tied together with like a bungee cord and they were basically going back and forth trying to get apples or something. I can’t remember what it was.
– Apples always cause troubles, those bad apples.
– Never use apples, there’s another tip. But I just remember in the moment it was a host that wasn’t practicing and they bring up these two girls and the size differential was just bad, you know. So you’re in the moment and what do you do? Well in this case they didn’t do anything and this poor girl she was like on the back of a ski boat picking up speed around the turns. And it was just bad, it was just a bad situation. But when you go through it and think through we used to call it, you need to block the game. We would basically go through and think through the game. Talk about who’s going to choose. We would pre-select contestants in something like that. Because you don’t want to say no, you’re too big to play this game, especially on stage. Or you’re too small, or those sorts of things. So pre-select your contestants, walk through practice, think about it. And then a lot of times as Candice said, maybe cancel it. Come up with something else, you know? The other thing was we had a ton of eating games and it sounded weird but we would always ask about allergies. I’d be like hey, I need someone who, you’re going to eat something and you can’t have any allergies. Which made me wonder if I was going to get sued because of the non-allergy kids because they couldn’t play our games, or the allergy kids. So just some ideas.
– The term that comes up in the literature would be foreseeability. Is your held to a standard of foreseeability. Could you foresee this happening? So if a meteor hits them that’s not foreseeable you unless you went out and played in a meteor storm. But you’re not held accountable to that. But if you’re going to have people from all directions run to those same spot, laws of physics come into play that you can’t occupy the same space.
– [Tom] You should have known.
– So then there’s this oh that is foreseeable that this could happen. I think asking that question, what could go wrong? We tend to live on the how awesome it’s going to be and how great pictures and it’s going to be laughter. But what if it didn’t go great? Then that’s the foreseeability that’s like okay, is that appropriate, worth it? Or can we mitigate that with protective clothing? Can we have this? Or let’s stage it or scale it or something. So it’s not don’t do the activity, it’s do it in a manner that focuses on safety.
– And I think with that though, it requires some self-awareness, right? You have to be aware of your abilities and your giftedness. And do you have the gift of being able to think through the details in advance? And if not, that goes back to the whole hey, collaborate. Maybe you can’t think through, you don’t have the gift to think through in detail every aspect of something.
– So there’s injury that could come from activity, these games, all sorts of things. What else? What are some other things that we should be thinking through? What areas of ministry?
– I’m just thinking through social media and everything else. Kids’ faces, faces of minors. When I first started before social media got big I remember in education we were supposed to have websites up. But if we showed a kid’s face, we would be fired. So you always had to have a picture and you couldn’t show. Well that seems to have really let up just because there are pictures everywhere of kids and families, and all those sorts of things. But I still think it’s something to think about. And we always would ask people, especially at events. They would sign a release of photos because we’re going to show photos, those sorts of things.
– I think I’ve seen some things now where with that specifically that there’s signs in some churches and in the bulletin that just says hey, if you’re on this premises then you are allowing yourself to blank unless you stop by blank and fill out whatever form.
– That is one thing we used to have them check the box when they were registering, and you always had four or five kids that wouldn’t. And it was hard to keep track of who did and who didn’t. Eventually we got to the place that it was if you registered for this event, you’re agreeing.
– That also brings in permission slips. Some people refer to just permission slips. But thinking about all the different components of a permission slip. The liability component, the medical release. If you’re doing something that might be physically whatever, then making sure that parents sign off and say that my child is physically able to do this. ‘Cause that can also if you’re doing something like rock climbing, I don’t know. Not all kids might be physically able to do that. And a parent needs to sign off, or injury might happen. And just make sure that the church is not held responsible.
– I’ve got a story that goes along with that that I think has a good practical application. We used to go to this place called Camp Palowopec when I was in middle school for our fall retreat. They had this really awesome rope swing where you got up on this platform and it was on a hill. And at the apex you’re like 40 feet above the ground, and then you’re coming back. And there were signs all over the place that said unless you can do this many push ups, unless you can do this, unless you can do this, don’t do this rope swing. We had a girl who was at this retreat, it was her very first experience with the church who decided she could do those things. Did the rope swing and fell. And the church got sued, the camp got sued. But ultimately what got the church sued was that we had some volunteers that were trying to be helpful and decided we’ve got to get her to a hospital, and moved her. So the church got sued for negligence for moving someone who was injured. So even thinking through in those kinds of situations. Like okay, if someone gets hurt should we call? What do we do, what do we not do in these situations that aren’t always spelled out for our leaders. Because they just get in the moment of oh gosh, we’ve got to get her to a hospital.
– I think for myself I’ve been called Mr. Safety, and been made fun of, and this and that which I find to be funny since I would be the one to take groups on wilderness trips and do all these things. I whitewater kayak and rock climb, and this kind of stuff, and off-road race.
– We get it, you’re the man.
– I think it’s by having a mindset of safety allows you to have more fun. Because my events, not my events, if you think about it you don’t get shut down. The biggest killjoy on an event is an injury. The whole thing stops and when ambulances and flashing lights show up you’re not having fun anymore. So when you pay attention to those things and you don’t have an incident, your kids had more fun than when their friend is on the way to the hospital. So by paying attention and by using outfitters and saying hey, we’re going to outsource this risk to a professional, we get to have way more fun than us going down some creepy little creek in the borrowed canoes. We instead get to go down class four rapids because we went with an outfitter who’s professional and knows what they’re doing. I just kind of have this belief that if we lean into it and lean into the experts, and lean in and say hey, we want to have this, help us get there, we’re going to have a better experience than when we have the mindset that says that stuff gets in the way of fun.
– And sometimes that costs more and for cheap youth pastors, and I’m pointing at myself there, that was always one of the things that went through my mind. Could we do this on our own? If we could, what’s the good? But if we do, what’s the downside, right? And liability is a big piece of that.
– You know, one of the things we would always do at camp is we would ask our church for volunteers for registered nurses, doctors, or EMTs and we often got volunteers who would come with us. So when something happened, and many times it did, as far as your situation where you’re saying the church got sued, it was very clear and it was part of the training that if something goes down this person’s in charge. Because they know what needs to be done and all that stuff. Sometimes they’re a little too excitable. I remember one year at camp we had a kid, and they hit the ground and they complained about their neck. I was like oh please don’t say anything. That’s kind of like the big thing, you know? And this brand new EMT that didn’t come with us that came with the ambulance started to tell us well we have to now call Life Flight. So they explain the whole thing. So this kid who was in, I’ll tell you the end. He’s not hurt at all. But because we have this EMT we have Life Flight. You want to talk about–
– The expense.
– Well yeah that and bringing–
– Keep having your daily quiet time.
– Anyway, that was a fun one. But better safe than sorry, I guess, was the way this guy. But it did cost, did cost some cash.
– One of the things that I’ve done just leaning into the professionals at church is if there’s a church lawyer or someone in the church who is a lawyer, or if your denomination has any kind of approved permission slips or liability waivers using those or running anything that you pull together through a lawyer. I know that for me that’s been very, very helpful just to make sure there’s no loopholes or anything that you might be missing, because I’m not a lawyer. My sister’s a lawyer, I call her for legal aid. But I mean I’m not the lawyer here, I’m the minister. My father makes a jokes that one of my kids will send you to jail, the other one will save you.
– For a trip or an event or something we’re doing we can put together the information we need to know going into that. But we don’t know what we don’t know. So I feel like I’ve seen more and more student leaders and church people reach out to insurance companies and say you let us know what we need to be getting from parents instead of us just making assumptions and guessing.
– And I’ve even called a fire marshal to get just the capacity of our rooms in our church. Just to know hey, how many people can we really fit in this room with all the different furniture that’s in here. What is the number that we can have in this room that’s safe? Then also walk me through what the evacuation plan is for those numbers and making sure everyone is trained and is clear on that just for safety purposes and making sure.
– And that’s a mindset shift that says you are here to help me. My ministry will be more effective and better. I will be a better disciple of people if I reach out to the fire marshal, if I reach out to insurance, if I reach to to lawyers. And that takes a bit to get to that point. Because I think when we’re first starting we see all of them as like they’re all going to slow us down and keep us from doing what’s important. And on the insurance with the waivers and things, your local agent who has the office downtown isn’t necessarily the best person to talk to. So he might be the one who wrote the policy for the church, but the underwriting agency, Brotherhood or whatever, they have experts at the home office. That’s all they do. Whereas your local guy, and you say hey I want to do a rope swing, or I want to do this out have a course in the back of the church property, he’s going to flip out. Like whoa, that just seems like scary. That’s typical response, he’s an insurance guy. But if you can ask and say hey, can you help me with the specialist at the home office, well that’s all they do is set up ropes courses at camps, and churches, and things. He’ll say oh that’s a great idea. But I would like you to do it this way. And he’s going to give you their spec sheet of sure, great, as long as. So once again you can get to people who are trying to help you rather than feeling like they’re slowing you down. But it’s asking the right people for that help.
– So I think one of the more frustrating things for me as I’m talking to some of he people I’ve been coaching across the country is a bunch of churches are just, they’re just saying no. They’re just saying no to trips, they’re saying no to overnights. They’re saying no to adults with students outside of the church walls. And though I understand it from a legal side, I feel like the questions they’re asking are should we do this? I don’t think you ask the question should we do this. It’s like hey we’re going to do this. Talk about some of the wise things to do because it’s really important in ministry that kids and adults are together kind of long-term. And if you operate from that fear deal it’s going to hurt. Which brings us to beyond injury, adults and kids in a room just scares those legal folks, those insurance folks. There are reasons it should, but 99% of the reasons are good that good things are going to happen. It’s that small percentage of the times that when the bad happens it’s really bad.
– We’ve all seen the articles and the news reels of student pastors and church volunteers, they get arrested for this, and get arrested for that, and accused of this, and accused of that. So we know that’s a potential. We know that’s the reality of the world that we live in. What are some things that we need to be aware of and some things that we need to be doing on our leadership side to protect our students from that? And to protect our adults from those things, too?
– Well the top three things are background checks, background checks, and background checks. I mean that’s really the beginning. Background checks are kind of the sticker on the door that we have a security system at this church. And unfortunately so many churches don’t. Adults who are looking to do this can easily find a place that won’t. But being a place that will is a very clear, you never know because someone always has a first offense. But the background check, if you don’t do the background checks you have no chance in court if something goes down.
– That’s true, and at my church what I’ve always done personally, I’ve done background checks but I’ve also, I’ve done word on the street about you.
– Yeah, references.
– Not references, no. I mean yeah, asking for references.
– People who are not on the reference list.
– Right you know, just being in the church and finding out who are the people who have been around for a long time and might know some of the stories. Because not everything has been reported, you know. There was one church where there was a person who wanted to volunteer with our youth and was very adamant. I’m like hey, all right let’s go through the process. I gave her the background check, filled it out. She passed the background check. I was talking with another member in the church about this person serving. And they said that this particular person, that person had molested her from the time that she was about 11 or 12 years old. And at that point she was probably mid-30s. So it was never reported. So one of the things that I’ve always tried to do, as I got to churches that were larger it got more challenging to do word on the street. But when you’re at smaller churches, if you can do that it’s very, very helpful because you never know who might still be in the church, done things that have never been reported and just looking for more opportunity.
– And you don’t have to let someone serve that passes a background check.
– It’s still your stewardship. I used to tell my staff all the time, creeped out is a valid emotion when it comes to protecting our kids. And if you can’t explain why you don’t feel right about it, ask someone else to kind of lean in as well. But never get in a place where you feel like you know what, I don’t feel right about it, but I have to. You never have to.
– And then also there might be some people in the ministry, in the church rather, who are not necessarily expressing an interest in serving with the youth, but are just lurking around. And I had to get comfortable exercising my personal authority, my responsibility and just saying hey I need you to not hang around in this space. But this person was just not, wasn’t a safe person.
– Well that’s another good sign in the teacher host team. Like if they’re not a volunteer, if they haven’t had a background check.
– No reason to lurk.
– Maybe one person or maybe you, but it’s really, really an important part. In fact, I used to have a police officer and they’ll do this by the way. They’ll come talk to your volunteers, they’ll come talk to your staff. They tell the most horrible stories, but the thing that I remember him, this was a he at the time. He just said they are the most patient people. They will lurk, was the word he used. They will hang out, they will be there at the right time when you just need someone to step in and do something. They will wait two and three years. And then they will become part of your ministry and it will be one of those things where you’ll look up and realize oh, I never ran a background check on that person. So you just have to be on it, you have to be strict. And you have to re-run background checks.
– That’s another thing. I like what you said, as the leader of the church we have to be the ones that believe in the value of a consistent leader in the life of the kids, and impact ministries, and trips, and experiences. We have to champion those and believe in that. But equally, and there’s this tension, but equally we also have to know that there are people who are trying to gain access to our students. So on the one hand I’m saying this is a value that we will do trips, we will have small groups, we will make this happen. But then I have to almost flip a switch and say okay, but the individuals that are going to help with that I have to know that there is a potential pedophile in this stack of papers. And it’s my job to find them. And I can’t say if, I must switch it to when. It’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when is it going to happen? And it’s my job to do everything that I can do and you’ll never be perfect. But trying, but that mindset of not believing it’s a wild card that it would happen. This is normative.
– And it’s not, what I hear you saying is it’s not living out of fear and it’s not being super suspicious about every single person. But it’s just living in that reality and not kind of living in a false sense of security, that can’t happen here.
– Well think about every news story. It starts with, I never would have guess that dot, dot, dot. It’s that over and over and over again and that’s what you’re looking for. And I believe you can talk about this with your volunteers. I think your number one defense are the volunteers in your ministry. That you equip them, that you talk about it. That you say that we’re looking for this and if anything strange happens would you let us know? That’s another reason why we went to co-leaders in a group because there was always another adult in the room. So we always had co-leaders, a high school kids. We train leaders not to be alone. We actually put reverse mirror windows so that you can see in, but the kid couldn’t see out. It was just little things like that that allowed us to be behind closed doors but not, you know.
– So Shef, one of the things to your point that kind of make me sick, but that I think about every time I hear those stories and read the articles about youth pastors or about volunteers getting arrested is that if we made a list of all the characteristics that would make up the ideal small group leader and volunteer that we want working with our students, there’s a lot of overlap with the kind of characteristics that make up a sexual predator. What does it look like for us to continue to create environments where we do value deeply personal relationships? And we value vulnerability, and we value having adults investing in the lives of teenagers. But how do we protect them from those things at the same time? For me, one of the only things that I can really think of is that we have intentional systems that we know our volunteers and we know their life. Yes background checks, yes interviews. Yes all of those systems have got to be in place, too. But we also have to have systems that help us develop continuing, ongoing, personal relationships with them whether that’s us as the leader or whether we’re talking about coaches. Whatever the system is we have to know them on personal levels and continue having those kind of conversations. And it can probably still happen, I don’t know. But kind of going back to what you said at one point. We have to do everything that we can do on our end. And those are probably some things that we can do a little bit better is keeping not relational tabs on our volunteer leaders because it’s not just a means to an end. But we also have a more vibrant, healthier ministry and better leaders in general when we have those kind of relational connections.
– You have a system where you have it set up where it’s possible for you to have quality relationships with your volunteers, where you know their life, you know what’s going on which is just good ministry. On the other hand you also can tell when something’s off. So that’s a great way to think about it.
– I think sometimes we’ll confuse personal equality with private. And I think that’s a mistake. Personal doesn’t mean it has to be one-on-one. Personal can be a leader with two, three kids. That can be very personal, very quality, very beneficial. Private is something that’s different. So I think sometimes just that little bit of change there and saying we are committed to personal quality relationships, I’ve not given you a blank check to go have private experiences and relationships. I think that’s just something we should think about.
– It makes me think, I’m thinking of different conversations I’ve had with small group leaders over the years where I don’t think they had anything diabolical in mind. But it was just not wise, you know what I mean? I remember one small group leader saying at camp, I like to take my kids on a one-on-one walk through the woods and we get out into nature. And I was like well that’s nice that you like to do that. You don’t get to do that here. And he didn’t understand it, and he wasn’t a small group leader for much longer. I remember we’d have Walking Wisely where the kids get in cars with the adults and they drive away, which is a whole ‘nother thing we really haven’t gotten into yet. But that was the scariest time for me as I saw all of those cars pulling away from the program. But one of the rules were that high school leaders cannot drive kids. High school leaders cannot. They can drive bags, they can drive luggage, but high school leaders cannot drive kids. And I remember the one leader telling me, well you know, my daughter’s probably a better driver than me. And I was like well then you don’t get to drive kids, either. It doesn’t mean your high school daughter does. But we’re going to figure out something else. Again, they’re just not wise about how they’re thinking about it. And you should step in there because who knows what a kid’s going to say? And if they put themselves into a tough situation or bad situation you don’t have a lot of help for them.
– So when it comes to the whole driving piece I hear a lot of churches say leaders should not drive students and I get it. I totally get it, but I think within some places it’s just a challenge, you know? You might have a student who wants to come and the church doesn’t have a van and they want to come and they have no way of getting home. Parents, transportation, like what do you do? You take them. And I’ve drove in the car many a times with students, right? And then also when it comes to the private conversations I’ve had one-on-one text message conversations, DM conversations with students. And most of the times that’s where those predators start lurking. Sliding into somebody’s DM, right? But there’s different things that you can put in place to make sure that safety still happens. One of the things that I used to do is if there was a student who I knew that I would drive regularly, have a waiver that parents have signed. And it’s just an ongoing one that I left in the office just in case for any kind of whatever, you know. When I got in the car, letting somebody know hey, I’m getting in the car to take so-and-so home. When I dropped them off, hey, I dropped so-and-so off. Just communicating certain things like that. And also there’s different things that I’ve put in place for our volunteers. No texting after a certain time. I think I had like a nine p.m. to seven a.m. rule. You can’t text students between those times. Those are just times that I’ve put in place because I felt like it was getting kind of after dark hours. There’s nothing outside after dark but the devil. But you know those late night hours you don’t text or you don’t DM a student. You don’t do those kinds of things. And I think that when it comes to the church yeah, there’s certain things that we have to have in place legally, but practically it might look a little bit different. If a student has an emergency and they’re texting me in the middle of the night I’m-a respond, but I’m probably going to call them and not necessarily have a texting conversation because it’s an emergency. And hey, are you okay? If it can’t wait ’til the morning we can talk now. But if it can wait ’til the morning can we talk in the morning because I’m just a little more comfortable then. I’ve got grown students now who text me after 10 p.m. and I’ll respond because you’re a grown up. You got kids, you know? We’re texting, whatever. And they’re like oh, we didn’t know that you were up this late. I’m always up this late, I’m just not responding to you this late, you know? I think it’s one of those everything isn’t always black and white. How do you navigate and live in the gray but still be safe?
– I love text messages ’cause it’s a record. I used to tell small group leaders all the time just don’t delete your text with the kid because you never know when we’re going to have to go back and look and see what was said or whatever. Emails, text, not that kids email. But you know, social media there’s still a digital record. So don’t delete those things. Keep track of that because you never know what’s going to come up in the future.
– And just a practical piece, Shef, on something that I’ve done when it comes to text messages. If I’m having a conversation with a student I’ll screenshot it. I’ll screenshot it and I’ll put it in an email and I’ll email it to myself. And one of the things I’ve done at a previous church, I’ll email it to my supervisor. I’m like hey, just an FYI, this is a conversation just so we have everything laid out so nothing is ever taken out of context. I would have a folder in my email call confidential. Probably should have called it something different because the first thing someone’s going to go into.
– Don’t look here, totally nothing information.
– Right, but I called it confidential, probably should have done something different.
– Right, nobody cares about crocheting. Let me not say that, if you crochet I value your artwork. But yeah, so just stuff like that.
– So to me man, this is a really heavy conversation and this is one of the kind of conversations that when I would listen to I would just be reminded of all the things that I need to start doing or I need to be doing better. So to pile on that, any last thoughts that we haven’t even talked about yet?
– [Tom] Random thoughts.
– Yeah, that we can just add to the list of people that are listening.
– I’ve got two random thoughts. One is anybody can sue anybody for anything at any time. Our last executive pastor was so good about saying there’s nothing you can do to keep people from suing you. You just need to make sure that I love that you saw that you could foresee the issues and that you took care of it. You’re not negligent and we will handle it when it comes up. And the other one is just to pay special attention because it’s come up with me several times. Divorce situations and custodial situations. Pay very close attention to who can pick up which kids because you might be liable for letting the kid go with the wrong parent. And you’re responsible for that. So just pay very close attention to those.
– I like to think about the theology of risk which sounds like a funny thing. But thinking through–
– Dr. Kizer!
– But you think through what do we already know to be true from scripture about things? What is God’s plan on this? Sometimes I feel like we have some really bad theology on this. That if I give a prayer of blessing before we jump off this rock, somehow God’s going to chose to suspend the laws of nature because I prayed. Well I know what God’s will is if we run head-first into a wall, it’s called injury. And so sometimes I think that we say oh, if we pray about this it will somehow be fine. Or because we’re at church–
– [Brett] Hedge of protection.
– Yes, God’s going to protect us from that.
– Traveling mercies as we fit 20 students into the 12-passenger bus.
– Exactly, we have these really bad theology of risk. And I think we need to accept that God put these things into motion and work with them and say okay, this is what God’s already put into motion, but we still want to do this activity. Great, but we need to do it well. And I think we can fall into that trap and somehow playing the church card, the God card, the prayer card and that doesn’t serve us well.
– That was really good, I don’t know if I can follow that.
– You got this.
– That was so good, can you all cut mine before his? Seriously though, no seriously I think the last piece for me well kind of two things. One is that some youth pastors, especially if you are full-time around the church you know your church building a lot better than a lot of other people. And be an owner of it. Don’t necessarily think that it’s somebody else’s responsibility to see something that needs to be fixed and report it or even work to get it fixed because there’s a lot of injuries that happen just from things being broken around the church. But also just on the confidential piece, you know in ministry we go into ministry just to make a difference in the lives of students and that means sometimes that there might be some conversations that come up or things that are said that aren’t okay to keep to yourself. That are not okay to keep confidential and we are all mandated reporters. If someone mentioned harming themselves, harming someone else, or someone is harming them we have to communicate that to someone else. I’ve had to make some really tough decisions in ministry but they have all been for the best of the student. So just remembering that we are all mandated reporters, everybody we are, staff, whether you are a volunteer. If someone says something, you have a responsibility to do something with it.
– And the details of some of those are different depending the state. So wherever you are if you don’t know the ins and the outs of that you need to probably Google that right now, have a conversation with some people about what that actually looks like.
– When I was a camp director we had a scenario that came up after the campfire. So Friday night while you only have a few hours left with them, great. It’s a perfect time for the crisis to come up. So the bus came up to pick up the kids and we had a scenario that we’re trying to figure all of this out. So we had to fake the bus breakdown. So we’ve got the hood up on the bus.
– Do you send that kid home situation?
– Absolutely, we had to determine whether or not we could ethically, maybe legally even allow that kid to go back to their scenario. So we had friends in Health and Human Services that were on the phone to try to figure that out. But man that was a squirrely one.
– That is so hard because the student has made the decision to confide in you. And sometimes they don’t always understand the risk.
– On a lighter note Darren, I would love for you to write a blog about the five best ways to fake a bus breakdown.
– I’m on it, I’m on it.
– Is is a certain cable you pull that gets the dramatic smoke so everybody thinks it’s real?
– Where do you pour the water, or is it Coca-Cola you’re pouring.
– That’s why you have the smoke machine. So you take that out, put it underneath. You know the one that set off the fire alarm?
– That’s happened to me.
– Taped off and use again, yeah that one.
– Okay, I have a really weird one. I found out at our last church the way that we were doing youth accounts was illegal from fundraisers. So for years I mean the church that I grew up in, so many churches that I was leading you do fundraisers. However many things that you sell, or however long you work at the fundraiser you earn a certain amount of money that kind of goes into your youth account and you get to use that money for this trip, that retreat, whatever it is. Apparently that’s illegal and you’re not allowed to do it as a non-profit, as a 501c3, whatever the specifics are you’re not allowed to do that. So I would just say I don’t know if that’s a state thing, I don’t know if that’s an across the board IRS thing. But it’s worth talking to your bookkeeper and it’s worth doing some Google searches and figuring out how are you doing fundraising, how are you disseminating those funds that you do raise? And is there any opportunity for you to get in some legal trouble based on the way that you are doing that?
– We stopped taking cash, it was all credit cards. All went through another system so it was all clean because if you’re being sloppy with money it can come back and get ya, that’s for sure.
– So thanks so much for hanging out with us as we talk through the very exciting world of the ministry of lawsuits and we learned about the theology of risk today which is fabulous. I’m going to put that one in my back pocket so people think that I’m smart, and I won’t credit you, sorry.
– Me too.
– It’s free, free information.
– But really, thanks for hanging out with us. We hope this is helpful in some ways, there’s some takeaways. We want you to check out rethinkingym.org. Our show notes are going to be there, some recaps, some different things that we talked about. So Shef, Candice, Darren on your first one, thanks so much for hanging out with us and we’ll talk to you and see you later.