Safety 101: A church leader's guide to risk management

Developing a comprehensive safety and risk management plan for your church starts with assessing the risks in each key area of ministry.

When a child custody dispute erupted after a nursery school graduation ceremony at the Grabill Missionary Church many years ago, teachers at the school were caught squarely between the battling parents. “At the time, we didn't have a clear policy in place,” former Pastor David Sjoberg said, “and our staff even disagreed among themselves how to handle the situation.”

In the wake of that incident, church leaders realized that they needed to develop more comprehensive risk management policies. “We want to make our church the safest place we possibly can for the children in our care,” Sjoberg explained.

Like an increasing number of churches, Grabill Missionary saw the need to take steps to prevent problems before they happen—the very essence of risk management. Many churches are working on comprehensive risk management plans that thoughtfully consider and address the exposures involved in their ministries.

Reducing risks for your ministry comes down to identifying your risks and choosing staff to help develop, implement, and carry out a risk management plan.

Developing a Plan

Even when church leaders recognize the value of developing a risk management plan, it's sometimes difficult to know where to start. Your first challenge is finding the right person to oversee the responsibility. Then, you need to decide which area of ministry to tackle first. Trying to address every aspect of your ministry at once could be overwhelming and discouraging. Once you have implemented risk control measures in one area, you'll be able to build on that success to make changes elsewhere.

Choose good people. Recruiting the right people to develop the plan is key, says Matthew Greene, previous national sales director for Brotherhood Mutual. Create one or more committees of people who understand and value risk management. Include professionals in areas you intend to address, such an accountant for financial issues and a builder for structural ones. Most importantly, Greene says, “put someone in charge who is invested with enough authority to make things happen.”

Take small steps. To make it more manageable, break the process of developing a risk management plan into several “bite-size” steps. First, focus on the areas most central to your ministry, suggests Jehu Brabham, business administrator of Parkway Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi. For his church, this meant starting with children's activities and transportation.

Identify risks. Then, look at all the possible risks in those areas, asking yourself: “What's the worst thing that could happen?” In the children's area, you might ask if a non custodial parent could kidnap a child or if the nursery wing could catch fire. Assess the probability of each risk and what you can do to reduce or eliminate it.

Use available resources. “Remember that you don't have to reinvent the wheel,” Brabham said. “There are many places to find help with risk management strategies.” He picked up ideas from reading church-oriented magazines, talking with other church business administrators, and conferring with his insurer's risk control experts.

When he served as executive pastor at Brookside Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Rocky Rocholl found that his membership in the National Association of Church Business Administrators was a valuable source of information about risk management. He also found help within his congregation. “We have been fortunate in having a number of insurance professionals among our members, and we've tapped their knowledge in identifying risks and finding ways to address them,” he said. “Risk management has been in our DNA from the start.”

Implementing the Plan

Once the plan is developed and approved, communication is critical. Church leaders should share relevant parts of the plan with key employees and volunteers and make sure they get periodic training, Rocholl emphasized. 

The roll-out of a new plan may upset some church members. When Parkway Baptist introduced extensive new screening policies for childcare and youth workers several years ago, some longtime volunteers questioned whether the policies went too far. Brabham explained that the policies were developed with one thing in mind—protecting the church's children. He reminded volunteers that screening them would allow the church to stand behind each of them with full confidence, and he said the grumbling slowly gave way to understanding.

Following Through

Once completed, a risk management plan shouldn't just end up as a document that gathers dust on a bookshelf, Greene said. “It really needs to be an all-encompassing, proactive approach,” he explained. “We keep seeing new types of risks all the time, so you need a plan that's updated fairly often.”

For churches that are just starting to develop a plan, Greene offers encouragement. “Ultimately, having an ongoing risk management plan is one of the best investments a church can make,” Greene said. “By spending a little time up front and thinking through their risks, church leaders can effectively protect their ministry and keep it moving forward.”