The Uniting Church in Australia is often praised by its members and the wider community for its diversity.
With diversity comes a range of different opinions and viewpoints, and with all those differing opinions, people can be left vulnerable, abused, and out in the cold.
Safe Church training has been developed by the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) to help churches create a welcoming and safe environment for all people who come into contact with it. While the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has increased the need for awareness, the training is not just about children; different cultural groups, the elderly, people living with a disability, people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ), people with differing theological opinions and those suffering from mental illness are all vulnerable to abuse.
The work of the church is to share the teachings and love of God in word and action. While sometimes that can be harder than we want it to be, it’s still our purpose.
Cindy Gorton is the Safe Church/Royal Commission officer for the Uniting Church WA. She’s been busy this year running Safe Church workshops all over the state.
She said that a safe church is one where people feel able to express themselves and be who they are. This happens when a range of things are put into place; vulnerable people need to be protected, leaders need to be aware of safe practices, and church programs need to be planned and run inclusively.
“[A safe church is] where people feel safe to express themselves whoever they are,” Cindy said. “That there are leaders who are aware of their responsibilities and the procedures, that the practices allow vulnerable people to be safe, to be protected, because they have more needs than the ordinary member of the church.
“Then there’s the other side of it; to be aware of where there might be risks and how to ensure that they put things in place.”
Identifying vulnerable people is not always straightforward. We are all vulnerable at different points in our lives, as even suffering from loss or grief can leave us vulnerable to abuse. With abuse coming in many different forms, sometimes unknowingly, it’s important for all church members to know what is and isn’t considered abuse.
“Each of us can be vulnerable at different times. So it’s that respecting and looking out for that vulnerability I think. It’s not just the leaders, it’s for everyone in the congregation to be aware of, by loving their neighbour,” said Cindy.
While the Royal Commission has been focussed on child sexual abuse, churches are also rife with bullying, belittling, gossip and disrespecting other’s opinions and way of life.
Cindy said that hearing stories of people who have felt unwelcome in the church has been a moving experience, as many people in the Safe Church workshops have shared their concerns. Responding to abuse can be confusing, as every situation is different. If you are concerned for a vulnerable person, the first step would be to talk to a trusted pastoral carer about what steps to take.
“[The Safe Church program] goes into protecting vulnerable people and identifying who they are and helping people to be aware of the signs of abuse and what abuse is. So it’s teaching them to look out for signs,” Cindy said.
“Loss, grief and mental illness and lots of different things for adults can make people vulnerable, and vulnerable to being preyed upon. And then there’s children and all that that involves, because of the fact that they’re so young and can be influenced.”
It’s for this reason that strong leadership in the church is vital. Cindy said that it’s important to discern who is in leadership roles in the church, and to not just accept the first person who is willing to put their hand up.
“We have team ministry. So it’s not just one person going ‘oh I decide this, I do that’. That way we’re holding each other accountable and supporting each other so no one burns out to the point where they do silly things or make bad decisions.
“It’s making sure that you recruit, supervise and monitor each of the leaders. And they have someone to supervise them, which is what we do with our ministers – which is a good practice. Sometimes within the church, volunteer groups don’t think that they need to do that, but we say that for all leaders it’s good to have someone else that they’re accountable to.”
Church programs need to consider all sorts of risks for church members as well as members of the wider community who come to the church for a specific program. While most churches are aware of the need for physical safety, we also need to consider the emotional and spiritual environment of the program by respectfully handling private information, responding to individual needs, respecting diversity, involving positive role models, and using respectful communication.
One element Cindy has noticed in the Safe Church workshops so far is the struggle many people face in trying to accept people with different lifestyles to their own.
“If [the church is] going to create a safe place, it does need to be welcoming of everyone where they’re at and who they are as God’s people,” she said.
“Jesus’ message about love God and love your neighbour as yourself, and the message of ‘love the person if you don’t agree or you have a difference of opinion about aspects of the person and their ways of behaviour.’ That’s the message that comes out through the Safe Church perspective.
“The church is a safe place for everyone, and they can’t be a safe place if a person is excluded for being different.
“As soon as people are excluded its hurt and rejection that they’re experiencing. They’re not experiencing a warm, welcoming reception,” Cindy said.
“The actions of some of the groups of the Uniting Church actually show that it’s not always a safe place for people. We have the New Testament, and often it’s the Old Testament that’s cited for any of the passages around that whole thing of not liking certain behaviour. But we have these new messages, and we’re a church that follows those.
“You love the person even if you don’t like what they’re doing. I think sometimes people get so wrapped up in what’s right and wrong.
“Anyone that comes to church, it’s the right place and time for them,” Cindy said.
Safe Church training workshops are being held regularly throughout 2016. The next training event will be held on Saturday 15 October at Mt Hawthorn St Peter and Emmaus Church. All Uniting Church leaders and members are encouraged to attend.
For more info contact Cindy Gorton on 9260 9800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are concerned for the safety of someone in your congregation or church network, contact Rev Steve Francis, moderator of the Uniting Church WA on 9260 9800 or email email@example.com or David de Kock, general secretary of the Uniting Church WA, also on 9260 9800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.