Living Faithfully and Well Together: 20th Inter-Classis Safe Church Conference

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Last month, over 90 people gathered at an Inter-classis Safe Church Conference, an event that Classis Huron, has been holding for 20 years. This event was very well organized and included many learning materials thanks to the dedication of Classis Huron’s Safe Church Coordinator, Atie Ott, and her team. 

The day began with worship and devotions led by Rev. Kathy Smith, adjunct professor of church polity at Calvin College. The message that has continued to stay with me is around God’s omnipresence with people. Rev. Kathy Smith said this can be taken as a promise for comfort and support, or can be a threat if we commit harm. She used the beautiful words of Psalm 39 and Psalm 46, reminding us God is always present and promises to revive the spirits of the lowly. She said, “God doesn’t promise that we won’t experience abuse. God promises to be present throughout our lives, to be our refuge. We work to proclaim God’s justice.”

This grounding in God’s word opened us to hear from Bev Sterk from Lynden, Washington. Last year, she brought an overture to Synod seeking to address abuse of power in the denomination. She spoke passionately about wanting changes in the church out of a period of grief and lament, saying, “This is not the church I thought we were.”  Sterk said, “Doing what is right often comes at a personal cost.” Though she felt called by God to trust God and to advocate for all to worship safely as people whose identity is in Christ and who are beloved children of God. More about her story can be found in a recent article in The Banner.

I attended a workshop on “Difficult Issues and Best Practices: Case Studies in Dealing with Abuse Allegations” offered by Rev. Kathy Smith. She stressed that there cannot be consent when one person is in a position of power, such as a clergy. She raised the importance about updating and living into safe church policies, saying, “Church order changes over time – it is in place to say how we live together well.” Lawyer Henry Van Druen offered a workshop on “Church and the Law” stressing the need for churches to act, to protect those who are vulnerable, and to rid the church from the harm of abuse. Other workshops included information on the Circle of Grace Abuse Prevention curriculum, the reality and tools to prevent cyber bullying, as well as addressing mental health issues when it comes to recovering from abuse.

The day ended with a panel of presenters. They said having active policies in place is a key element in making your church safer. As abuse occurs when people misuse/abuse their power, panelists said a key question for training, writing policy, and intervening in situations is: “Who is benefiting and being protected from power and why?” They found hope in a report of Abuse of Power going to this year’s Synod, the multitude of conversations around safe church, churches being proactive through awareness and prevention, with policies in place, and reactive in support and accompaniment through process and justice making. Through all of this ministry, they witness people of the gospel bringing God’s love and God’s justice.

If you attended this conference, we would love to hear your learnings and highlights in the comments below. 

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Safe Church offers mini-grants each year that can help make events like this possible. We're so thankful for our classis safe church coordinators and others who are willing to put in some effort to better equip congregations in abuse awareness, prevention and response. Watch for our new 2020 Safe Church mini-grant opportunity coming this fall.