In this season of coronavirus, church staff members have gone to heroic lengths to offer worship, prayer, Bible study, and fellowship through electronic means. They have used Facebook Live and Zoom, phone calls, emails, and text messages as vehicles for pastoral care and age-appropriate programming. Clergy deserve praise and gratitude for their ability to shift so nimbly to virtual church experiences while maintaining the human elements of pastoral ministry.

Now that we have grown accustomed to electronic participation in church and church ministry groups, it is important for us to ensure that these new ways of engaging one another reflect our commitments to protect the young and vulnerable in our congregations. Simply put, direct electronic communications and internet engagements can be isolating, one-on-one situations. Any isolated, one-on-one interaction can be an opportunity for sexual abuse by a clergy member or volunteer. We should maintain our good clergy sexual misconduct prevention and child/teen protection policies while meeting online.

Safer electronic programming follows the same principles and best practices as our in-person policies: set clear boundaries, maintain visibility, and hold each other accountable. For example, if youth ministers or volunteers will interact with teenagers through Zoom, parents and ministry supervisors should know the schedule of those interactions. Any “Zooming” outside of the scheduled time violates the clear boundary and should lead to a correction of the behavior. When online activities or studies are scheduled, two adults should still be present for leading the activity. The same oversight practices that protect children, teens, and vulnerable adults at church will help protect them online.

Ministers should think creatively about ways to protect our congregations as we engage new media for church programming. Consider what new opportunity for harassing behavior might arise based on the chosen platform. For example, “private chat” should be disabled when using Zoom to prevent one-on-one, harassing messages. Similarly, Facebook and YouTube comments should be disabled or curated to prevent inappropriate or demeaning comments. Churches should include in their protection policies guidance for adult engagement with youth social media, including the prohibition of direct messaging without including supervising ministers or parents. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship/Baptist Women in Ministry “Safe Churches and Ministers” resources include sample computer, email, and social media policies for church use.

The coronavirus crisis that pushed many churches to new electronic and social media engagement has revealed the possibilities for these tools to help grow engagements with our churches. Many churches will surely continue to adapt and enlarge their online programming even when the crisis passes. As we harness the power of the internet for the benefit of the gospel, let’s also be sure that we are conscientious in protecting children, youth, and vulnerable adults.

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Jay Kieve is coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. He serves on the CBF/BWIM Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force.