No one could have imagined a year ago that in just a few months the world would be turned upside down with the emergence of COVID-19. It would have been hard to fathom what we now know as the “new norm”. Churches have been impacted on every front. New policies and procedures have been implemented to maintain compliance and continue operations safely. Changes are happening daily, and church leaders must adjust.
Churches have been hit hard financially as a result of donors’ loss or reduction of income. Some ministries had previously been on a growth trend and had built new facilities to accommodate their increase in membership. Those trends are now on the decline as our nation recovers and stabilizes from the pandemic. However, we know the Church is resilient and has been a shining light during this time of uncertainty. New technology, providing the ability to stream services and host meetings, has been invaluable in navigating these unchartered waters and maintaining a baseline of contributors.
Online platforms such as Zoom, Teams and GoToMeeting have been amazing tools to create a sense of community and keep momentum moving forward. Keeping people connected would have been much harder, if not impossible, had these tools not been readily available. While acknowledging the positive results of this new world of technology, we also need to be aware of the negative. What was created for good has resulted in an emerging risk for our youth.
Pedophiles are always looking for new avenues to gain access to youth. Leaders need to take precautions and be aware when hosting online youth group meetings. It is key that leadership is trained in how to operate safely in a virtual environment. Our Risk Management Department at Insurance One has seen a heightened number of claims resulting from the abuse of online activity. It is important to spread the word and increase awareness of this emerging risk.
To decrease risk to youth in online meeting platforms:
- The same screening process needs to be followed for online meetings as for onsite activities. The church should not permit any adult who has not been screened to have access to children in an online meeting.
- Everyone should have and follow the 2-Adult Rule in their Sexual Misconduct Policy at all times during online activities. Both adults must have passed the screening process. If at any time the second adult must leave the online meeting, then the meeting will need to end early. The church should not tolerate any deviation from the 2-adult rule. This is where most claims are occurring. The root of the issue is lack of accountability by the youth leader.
- The leader needs to have a list of participants who have been invited to the meeting and check it against the list of those attending. The list of attendees should show upon the host’s screen. No uninvited participants should be allowed to join the meeting.
- It is much safer, especially in a Zoom format, to use a professional Zoom link rather than a personal account to host an event. Be sure your church has an account and get proper training on safety protocols when hosting a meeting.
- Turn off any chat features. Do not allow participants to talk to each other privately during the meeting.
- Get permission from parents for youth to join the online meeting. Encourage parents to be in the room or come in occasionally to check the virtual environment and ensure it is being run safely and in good conduct.
- Establish clear guidelines for youth regarding appropriate clothing and suitable backgrounds while attending the meeting.
- Parents and youth should not share the meeting link with other interested participants. Invites need to come through the host leader so they can track who is attending.
- If the online platform can be accessed through a social media format such as Facebook, instruct participants NOT to log in that way. They need to access it directly.
Accountability creates a safe environment for our youth. Abuse occurs as accountability decreases. Many online platforms have training available on operating meetings safely. Encourage your leaders to take advantage of this training so we can continue to build and maintain the safe community that is so desperately needed during this time.