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Committee for Preventing Abuse Wraps Up

Committee for Preventing Abuse Wraps Up
Amanda Benckhuysen, Safe Church Ministry director: “I have heard stories from people who haven’t felt heard or taken seriously.”

An ad hoc committee assigned to work on the prevention of abuse of power in the Christian Reformed Church turned in its last report to the Council of Delegates (the body that acts on behalf of synod between its normally annual meetings). 

Two years ago Synod 2019 instructed the Council of Delegates to form the committee and gave it a long list of tasks that would affect those training for ministry, ministry staff in congregations, employees of the denomination, non-English language groups in the CRC, and more. 

Some proposed responses to the assigned tasks were presented in the Agenda for Synod 2020. That synod was canceled and the proposals were deferred to Synod 2021. However, because this year’s synod was also canceled, the proposals were taken up by the Council of Delegates at its special meeting in lieu of synod. 

The completed tasks include:

  • An adopted code of conduct meant to be signed by all ministry staff in the denomination. In signing, a leader commits to truthfulness and respect, financial transparency, appropriate boundaries in all relationships, creating a safe environment for all, and reporting all known or suspected cases of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect of minors to the proper government authorities.
  • The formation of a “Dignity Team” to provide help regarding infractions that hurt people but fall between or outside the scopes of defined systems for addressing harm. The team’s approach would be restorative and problem-solving, not punitive and not requiring heavy documentation, according to the committee’s final report. The ad hoc committee described the intent of the team as one that would function with moral authority, not power in the administrative structures, and not as a body of appeal for decisions made in other processes. The team will report to the director of Congregational Services.
  • New criteria, developed by the executive director, on when a non-disclosure agreement may be considered—only when it’s clearly in the best interest of the person harmed. 
  • Changes to the employee handbooks for both Canada and the U.S. to improve support for complainants, prevent conflict of interest for those evaluating complaints, and provide options for alternate dispute resolution such as mediation and restorative justice practices.
  • Contextualized translation of abuse prevention resources for other language groups in the CRC.

Staff of the CRC’s Safe Church Ministry and Pastor Church Resources are still working on a process for record keeping to prevent repeat occurrences or transfer of abusive leaders to other churches. And Safe Church will develop a new assessment tool to integrate abuse of power recommendations, including annual assessments of how power is being used by those in leadership.

Pilot Project for Pastor Training

This year’s candidates for the ministry were required to complete an online training in abuse prevention as part of a pilot project. The training will also be required for pastors transferring from other denominations and commissioned pastors. 

Amanda Benckhuysen, the new director of the Safe Church Ministry, said participants appreciated the training and the need for it. The pilot training was available for individuals to work at their own pace. In the coming year, Benckhuysen said, the training will be offered in a cohort model for participants to work through training together. 

Benckhuysen also envisions the training being used for classes and local church councils. 

“Ultimately, our hope is that all ministry leaders in the CRC will take this initial training over the next couple of years and then take a refresher course every 3-5 years following that,” she said. 

See also Abuse of Power Training in Pilot Phase, from CRC Communications. 

A Gap in the Process?

In its discussion, which included review of five formal requests to synod related to abuse of power, the Council noted a possible gap in the current appeals process and asked the executive director to review it and bring recommendations back to the Council. Benckhuyusen said that the request is for the executive director to have a deeper look at the process. “In my office, I have heard stories from people who haven’t felt heard or taken seriously enough,” she said. “Are we allowing the people who are making decisions to have the information that they need to make  just and fair and compassionate decisions?”

Kathy Smith, the CRC’s Church Order specialist, said that it could be that the appeal process needs an improvement but that in her experience, the process does not prevent people from having equal voices. 

Nonetheless, the executive director was assigned to review the appeals process. 

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