Youth ministries are supposed to be safe. They’re intended to be refuges where children can learn about God, as well as get away from the everyday stresses of being a kid—school, peer pressure, piano lessons and competitive sports.
Youth groups also can be dangerous places. The activities that attract youth—dodgeball, skateboarding ministries and travel opportunities—come with their share of bumps and bruises.
Likewise, summer camp can be full of laughter, fellowship and learning new skills; but also poison ivy, sprained ankles and heat stroke.
Even seemingly innocent day-to-day interactions with youth can lead to unspeakable dangers—for the youth and for the viability of your ministry.
“The worst mistake [ministries] make is that many youth workers say, ‘this won’t happen to me,’” Jack Crabtree, author of Better Safe than Sued, told The Deacon’s Bench.
Bad things can and do happen to good churches and youth groups.
Insurance company Brotherhood Mutual has long studied some of the biggest dangers youth ministries face. Here’s our suggestions, which are based on their analysis.
Youth groups are all about fun and games, but games can careen out of control, thereby risking injury. Here are some tips to help you avoid problems:
• When selecting supervisors, try to pick those who act mature, use good judgment and can maintain control of the children. Teens can be good assets, but make sure you have at least two adults as your primary supervisors.
• Before the activity begins, meet with your supervisors to identify any problem points they foresee in the activity. Set a plan of action in case something goes awry.
• Have parents sign release forms and make sure you know of any medical or allergy issues that might affect your participants. Be sure you have contact info.
• Supervisors should explain the rules thoroughly to the participants. Review how they should handle anyone who gets upset or violent. Hint: Be respectful, but firm.
For some youth, camp isn’t really camp unless they have a scab or two to show for their troubles. For youth workers, camp accidents can be a huge headache. Brotherhood Mutual says many camp accidents can be avoided by:
• Appointing a risk manager to oversee the camp’s safety procedures.
• Interview and screen staff before hiring them (call references and do a criminal background check).
• Train staff memberes thoroughly, giving them a rigorous rundown of camp policies, behavioral guidelines, emergency procedures and other pertinent information.
• Don’t underestimate the importance of good training for your campers, too. Make sure they understand the camp rules and emergency procedures.
Making sure youth safely get to the destination and back home is one of the most overlooked aspects of youth ministry. Consider the following when hiring a driver:
• Licensing. Most states require commercial licenses to get behind the wheel of a bus or large van. Check in with your local Department of Motor Vehicles about rules and regulations.
• Age. Drivers under 21 or older than 65 are, statistically, more likely to be in traffic accidents.
• Experience. The more experience, the better.
• Safety record. If you hire a driver with a history of traffic violations, your ministry could be held negligent.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3,500 people drowned in 2005, and drowning is the second-leading cause of death for kids 14 and younger. To prevent such tragedies, make sure to:
• Swim only where there are lifeguards on duty.
• Pair up swimmers and use a “buddy” system to make sure everyone’s accounted for; every half-hour, do a “buddy check.”
• Consider having your younger swimmers and non-swimmers wear bright wristbands that are easy to see in the water.
• Take breaks to make sure swimmers don’t get tired, cold or swim too far.
• When appropriate, issue life jackets. Water-wings and inner tubes do not count: Non-swimmers who fall off inner tubes in deep water could wind up in deep trouble.
5) Sexual Abuse
Ministries are far more aware—and wary—of the dangers of sexual abuse than they were even a decade or two ago. The dangers have not subsided, nor will they. Here are some important steps to safeguard youth from predators and abusers:
• Don’t allow volunteers to work with kids until they’ve been with your church for at least six months.
• Screen all workers; look into their prior church membership and volunteer work. Have your church attorney inspect your application procedure, check references and at least consider doing criminal background checks.
• Always make sure two adults are monitoring children at any given time.
• Increase the number of supervisors for large groups of kids.
• Institute a “claim check” protocol, so children are released into the care of only a parent, guardian or another authorized adult.
Every year, about 200,000 children are treated for injuries they receive on the playground. These injuries aren’t always serious, but the CDC reports that some playground-related injuries can involve broken bones, amputations and—very rarely—death. A few precautions can help prevent many accidents.
• Use only professionally designed equipment, and make sure it’s used on relatively soft surfaces (i.e., pea gravel, wood chips), rather than concrete or asphalt. Anchor it firmly to the ground.
• Raised play areas should be equipped with guardrails.
• Make sure equipment is spread out enough so children won’t be whacking into each other as they play. Swings should be two feet apart and at least 30 inches from support poles.
• Regularly inspect and repair play equipment. Clean up the area regularly, removing debris, such as broken glass and sharp metal.
• Supervise children carefully. Make sure to keep an eye on the kids and their clothing, including ties, hooded garments and loose clothing that can get caught in playground equipment.
Skateboarding ministries have become one of the most popular, innovative ways to reach out to youth. In fact, a healthy portion of the 2,000 skate parks in the United States is owned by churches.
However, these ministries come with some obvious risks. If you plan to build a skate park, here’s some advice to help you avoid the goofiest problems.
• Contract professionals to design and build the park.
• Make sure two adults supervise at all times, and lock or dismantle the park when no supervisory adults are there.
• Require all skaters to wear helmets and knee and elbow pads.
• Post signs that include the following warnings: “Skate at your own risk;” “Not responsible for injury;” “This activity is considered hazardous;” “This area is not intended for use outside the hours of normal operation.”
• Make sure users’ parents sign per-mission slips and waivers of liability, and make sure they are covered by health insurance.
Brotherhood Mutual offers more information and several printable checklists on its Web site, www.brotherhoodmutual.com.
SEE ALSO: What Youth Leaders Wish Parents Knew