Staying Safe When Church is Online
Since the coronavirus lockdown, churches have been adapting to keep church ministry going and grappling with new technology to do so. However, as we get used to church ministry online we mustn’t lose sight of our legal duties to protect and our responsibility to ensure our children & vulnerable adults at risk are kept safe.
If we see safeguarding as an outworking of our biblical principles, our standards will undoubtedly be higher than the legal standards that government set for us.
Each church context is different, so church leaders should consider their own specific needs and challenges, and assess the risks to develop a specific plan to manage their situations.
Scope Activity and Assess Risk
It is important to understand the scope of activity that we have moved online and then to identify and manage any risks.
- Which activities have moved online?
- Are your online meetings open or closed groups?
- Are unsupervised children, young people, or adults at risk of abuse involved?
- Does the meeting require one-way or two-way communication?
- Are these short-term measures or new opportunities going forward?
The broad principle here is that any changes to your approach must include a careful risk assessment. Don’t forget to maintain a record of changes and don’t compromise safety: apply best practice safeguarding principles to this different context. Where a change is needed to normal practice, aim for minimum change possible.
Safeguarding is never about preventing legitimate ministry; we need to manage the risks rather than applying blanket rules that ignore the context. It’s not about lowering standards but applying the same high standards to a new context.
And don't forget about the general risks of spending more time online, especially for children. Linda Allcock (The Globe Church) has written some helpful thoughts on this, taken from the book of Titus.
Apply the Principles
To ensure safeguarding risks are managed, here are some suggestions to help you think through your online activity.
Explicit consent should be sought from parents where children are included, or even better keep communication with children through their parents. Remember that safe recruitment principles should not be compromised: only those with DBS checks should be involved in the delivery of any activity, even when online.
It is preferable for activity to be delivered using a one-way format – for example a pre-recorded video on YouTube or Facebook. Where one-way formats are used, regularly monitor to ensure no unauthorised content has been added.
If multi-way interaction is required – for example, a Zoom meeting:
- Protect with a password where possible;
- Public forums that restrict communication to groups rather than one-to-one should be used where possible;
- The same principles in a physical space should be applied to video conferencing:
- Rules relating to having more than one adult present should be maintained, as in a physical space. However larger staff ratios don’t need to be maintained: children remain the responsibility of the supervising adult;
- Risk assessments should be completed for activities;
- Maintain usual male to female ratios;
- Children should not join the meeting until the leaders are present and active, and children should leave before the leaders do;
- Particular care should be taken if a leader becomes absent (e.g. visiting the bathroom during the group) because it may not be as obvious as when in a physical space. Being “logged in” is not the same as being present!
- Monitor chat logs where possible;
- Consider whether an audio recording of the meeting is possible and permissible. Data retention would also need to be considered here;
- Consider how a child could engage with a leader if they needed a private conversation;
- Keep registers.
Any processes, decisions, and changes to online activity should be documented and clear. If a change is temporary and is likely to be discontinued once lockdown is relaxed, it may be better to leave the safeguarding policy unchanged; outlining the variations in a risk assessment.
This should specifically reference the policies and procedures wherever there is a variance from the documented procedures. It should also indicate the duration of the variance: either as a date or by a specified condition, for example ‘until public gatherings resume’.
If the change is to continue as a new area of ministry, policies and procedures should be updated in the usual way.
These are complex situations, and simplistic approaches will not be safe – this resource aims only to provoke a thought process. A fuller guidance briefing can be found on the Christian Safeguarding Services website or through the presentation below.
For further information, you can contact Paul & Sue Harrison at Christian Safeguarding Services via email or by calling 07960 751778.