by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
As we start the new year, may 2016 bring you, your loved ones, and your congregations the best year ever! While many of you are already busy at work on your new year’s resolutions—committing to new fiscal patterns, healthier eating habits, or a formal exercise plan—maybe our congregations could make a resolution or two, as well! I’m not talking about pie-in-the-sky resolutions to change the world on your own; I mean greater relationship-building and everyday nuts-and-bolts not often considered in our congregations.
Though relationship building seems like the most difficult task, it is really the easiest! Try sending a note to your closest congregations inviting them to attend or take part in a special event at your congregation. Partner with them to address a local or national social issue. Make a new friend who does the same kind of volunteer work you do in another congregation, then share ideas and resources. There is a lost art to personal contact and welcoming. I’d like your help to revive it within our congregations. Can we do it together? I think we can. It might just spill out of our congregations and into our communities! How wonderful would that be?!
Let’s not forget the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts I mentioned earlier, such as congregational safety and its many dimensions. I address this now because many of our congregations have been seeking advice on how to keep their members and spaces safe throughout the week and during Sunday service. Though it is not the most comfortable, exciting, rosy conversation topic, it is necessary to discuss and plan for the unique situations and qualities of each of our congregations.
Let’s start with policies. Does your congregation have a Congregational Safety Policy? How about a specific Youth Safety policy? If so, is it up to date and being followed? If not, lets work on this in 2016 together! As the UUA’s safety webpage reminds us, “Although no policy or knowledge of the issues can absolutely guarantee safety in your congregation under all circumstances, congregations can take pro-active steps to create environments that are safe and prepared.” Our UUA’s Safe Congregations page is chock-full of great info and resources for creating your own set of policies. You can find that handbook here: http://www.uua.org/safe/handbook.
Think about the basics of building safety. Are all exits clearly marked? Are your fires extinguishers properly charged and maintained? Do you have clearly marked evacuation plans? When is the last time the whole congregation had a fire drill? These things sound mundane, until they’re not! Your leadership can call your local fire/police department to request a building safety walk-through. A walk-through helps first responders to become familiar with your property and community, which could help in times of emergency. The next step is to contact your congregation’s insurance company and ask for the same walk-through. Usually, while they are there, they can do a quick policy check to make sure you are covered for specifics we might not have considered! More on building safety can be found here, with a link to a Church Mutual starting-point checklist to assess security and building safety needs: http://www.uua.org/safe/117545.shtml.
Other building safety issues have arisen this past year with global and national political verbiage ramping up fear and anxiety. Here is a link to assist with understanding factors that lead to gun violence, raising awareness in your community, and possibly advocate-ing for change: http://www.uua.org/liberty/guns. Here is a helpful link to Church Mutual’s page with videos on crime in congregations and gun violence: https://www.churchmutual.com/170/Crime-Prevention and one to FEMA: https://training.fema.gov/is/courseoverview.aspx?code=IS-907.
These videos and resources may be helpful for your safety or escort teams to review in training sessions.
Keeping our youth safe is a priority I think we all can agree on! Yes, we are religious organizations, and, yes, we want to believe the best in all people, but protecting our youth is firmly our adult responsibility and a key component of congregational safety. Make sure there are two unrelated adults with youth at all times, and that you have valid, current background checks on anyone working with youth for any amount of time. Make sure to have policies set up for social media and technology use with youth communications before an issue arises, as clear expectations give youth and youth leaders the freedom to be their full selves responsibly. When training teachers and youth advisors, please make sure everyone understands mandatory reporting in your state (or a state you will be traveling through) and the guidelines around clergy privilege (or lack thereof). You can check that info here: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/sgm/index.cfm?&submit=1&topicName=mandatory%20reporting&audiencename=professionals. If your congregation or cluster is in need of Youth Advisor training or teacher training, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Natalie Briscoe at email@example.com. We have Youth Ministry Consultants specifically trained for this very thing!
Balancing Acts is a free online guide and coursework providing the essential tools needed for a comprehensive approach to safety and prevention to build a space where children and youth will be safe from sexual abuse: http://www.uua.org/safe/children. I also highly recommend looking into the Religious Institute’s newest congregational program, Sexually Safer Best Practices Congregation: http://www.religiousinstitute.org/safer-congregations/. Please feel free to contact me if your congregation is or would like to participate in that program or with any questions you might have.
These are just a few of the topics for discussion under the giant umbrella of congregational safety, but we need to start somewhere, right? And again, I know these are not comfortable conversations, but they are needed conversations. The good news is that they are conversations that you do not need to have alone! Call or write to me or your congregation’s Primary Contact http://www.uuasouthernregion.org/staff/primarycontact.html to receive assistance as your congregation goes through the somewhat intense, but rewarding process of setting policies for congregational safety.
May 2016 bring us all Peace, Love and Compassion, and yet let us still plan for a tomorrow of uncertainty—together!