Creating Safety In Special Needs Ministry

Ministries / Special Needs //

Once upon a time there was a church with a ministry for children with special needs and their families. This ministry had a significant outreach in the community by providing many large outreach community events. One major event was featured in the local newspaper and included a picture of one of the key leaders as well as many of the participants. The day after this newspaper article was published, the church leaders received a visit from the local law enforcement. The officer came to inform the church and special needs ministry leaders that the volunteer featured in the paper had a record of child molestation and pornography. He was currently on probation. Of course, this news devastated the church leadership. 

While this is a fictitious story, for many children’s ministries and churches around the country it has been a reality. How can children’s ministries establish policies and procedures that will protect them from situations like this that put children, their families and the church at risk?


What is Risk Management?

In its simplest form, risk management is having a plan in place to reduce liability to the church and ministry. It should also protect the individuals who volunteer and the children who participate in that ministry.


There are three basic tiers of looking at risk management.

1. The church as a whole

2. Children’s ministry

3. Children and their families who are Involved in the ministry

In regards to the FIRST tier, there should be policies in place to ensure the protection of the entire church as an organization. These include the following measures.


Church liability insurance policy

Most churches carry an insurance policy that will provide coverage for liability and damages if someone falls on the church property and breaks a leg or has some kind of injury and chooses to file a claim against the church. The insurance company will investigate and make a determination based on their investigation. As a children’s pastor or leader, it is highly recommended that you become aware of the type of policy your church has and the limits of liability.


Personnel policy

All churches should have an employee handbook for all paid church staff members. This book will outline specific policies and procedures to which the church expects all paid employees to adhere. Examples of what would be included are:

  • Knowledge of church’s organization and purpose.
  • Statements providing parameters regarding relationships with members and personnel in order to protect the paid staff members, as well as church participants from any inappropriate relationships.
  • Statements that define confidentiality in the workplace. Individuals within the church and ministry come to the ministry staff with serious issues at times, therefore it is important to make sure what they tell is kept in the strictest of confidences, unless permission has been granted to share in an appropriate setting.


Posted safety plans in case of emergency

These plans should be clearly posted in all rooms of the church building, especially in the children’s areas with clear instructions on what to do in an emergency. Emergency plans should also be clearly communicated with parents so they know where to find their children in case of an emergency. A list of emergency numbers for local law enforcement, hospital and fire department should also be readily available.

The SECOND tier of risk management is the children’s ministry itself. These are specific areas that are recommended for the children’s pastor and/or leader to develop policies and procedures to ensure the safety of all who are involved.


Secure check-in system

Develop a method to insure that the parent/caregiver who drops off and picks up the child has the right to do so. Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, there are many cases of custody cases in which one parent has sole custody and the other parent has no legal right to the child. You want to insure that whoever is picking up children in your area has the authorization to do so.

Examples of check-in systems:

  • Wristbands with matching numbers for parent/caregiver and attendee where the corresponding number is written down on a check-in sheet.
  • Computerized check-in system. Many church data base programs also come with the ability to check in children through this program. Check with your church’s program to see what possibilities exist. There are also several companies that provide a check-in system service.
  • Pagers. Several companies exist from which you can purchase a paging system.

Whatever check-in system you choose to use in your children’s ministry, make sure clear instructions are given to all parents, other pastors and staff members, as well as volunteers and ministry leaders.


Classroom safety

Ensure the room(s) being used is safe for children with special needs.


  • Provide non-latex gloves and hand sanitizer in the rooms.
  • Rooms free from any obstructions that would cause injuries.
  • Age-appropriate children’s toys (no choking hazards).
  • NO snacks with any kind of peanuts. A large portion of the special needs population have allergies to peanuts.
  • Keep closets and cupboards secure to prevent any potential injuries.

Volunteer application process

  • Secure background check. Many organizations provide this service for a fee to churches.
  • Volunteer application. The church should have a form for personal contact information, place of residency, the release to have a background check performed, some questions about prior children’s and/or special needs ministry or field experience, current and previous church attendance, why they want to serve in special needs ministries, current relationship with Christ and a statement that declares information is kept confidential.
  • Volunteer handbook. This is given to new volunteers once the background check is cleared. The handbook is where all stated policies and procedures are listed.

The THIRD and final tier is children and their families.


Emergency release forms/Parent guardian agreements

These forms contain important information on the child with special needs, such as dietary issues, allergies, behavioral issues, like/dislikes, release of liability, consent for treatment when parents are away or on outings, photo release, and important medical and/or information that pertains to the child with special needs. This information will assist the teachers and volunteers who are working with the children and are very important when preparing snacks. (I know this seems like common sense, but do not give children something if they have an allergy to it.) These forms are also where you find out specifics about the child, like history of seizures. Knowledge of this kind of information will help to provide a safe environment for the children in your care.


Parent handbook

This includes important information for parents about the ministry, the philosophy of ministry, the sick kids policy, etc. It’s a good tool to help keep communication lines open with parents.

Following through on these three areas of risk management will give you the groundwork to provide a safe environment.

Policies and Procedures for all children’s ministries should have:

  1. Child check-in and check-out policy
  2. Sick children policy
  3. Specific ratio of volunteers to children (including statements about never leaving a volunteer alone without another volunteer present)
  4. Shadows and buddy support for special needs children
  5. Emergency procedures and policies.


The reality is that there are potential risks in anything we do as a church or ministry. Accidents can and do happen no matter how prepared or how many policies a church has in place. There needs to be a balance of making sure we are doing everything we can to create and implement policies that will help to ensure safety without going to extremes. Before putting any policy in place, the children’s ministry pastor or leader should pray for God’s wisdom and guidance in developing plans, policies and procedures to provide a safe environment while still having great ministry programs.





About the Author

Dr. Julie Keith is the Special Needs Pastor at First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, CA. She has been involved in the special needs community for the past 24 years in both vocational and professional ministry settings. She lives in Riverside, CA with her husband, Jeff, and 7-year-old son, Dade. In her spare time, Julie enjoys reading, scrapbooking and going to Disneyland with her family.