It shouldn't really need saying, but let's be absolutely crystal clear: there is no more important value in youth ministry than excellent safeguarding. Keeping the young people with whom we work as safe as possible is not simply a box to tick alongside the more important work of the mission and ministry of God; it actually is the mission and the ministry of God.
The hideous crimes that have been perpetrated against young people by a small group of adults acting in the name of Jesus cannot be overlooked. Nor should they be – we can only resolve to do better if we choose to learn from and repair our history. Organisations like thirtyone:eight have led the way in keeping our gaze split between looking back and seeking justice for survivors of church-context abuse, and ahead at a future that doesn't allow the same awful mistakes. This is absolutely the right approach.
However, unless you're an abuse survivor, or have a close link to someone with that story, then it's very possible that the very word 'safeguarding' still leaves you cold. It's even possible that some people haven't even made it to the third paragraph of this article, such is their subconsciously low view of the importance of this subject. If you've made it this far, congratulations for recognising that we can't just trust someone else to be responsible for keeping our young people safe. Safeguarding is everybody's job.
Perhaps the reason why we're so often blasé about the issue is that everyone instinctively trusts their own context, and the people around them. Of course nothing bad could ever happen here... Of course our adults can be trusted... These are the natural impulses of anyone who's part of a high-trust context like a church. And these exact same impulses were felt around almost every abuser and abusive context there's ever been. So we have to stay vigilant and wise to possible safeguarding risks – or else we can only expect history to devastatingly repeat itself.
Doing better safeguarding together
So – how do we do better? What can help youth ministry to serve God and young people well through great safeguarding? Connecting with thirtyone:eight, ensuring great policies and procedures are in place, and having people who are specifically responsible for the area are all vital. I'd humbly suggest one additional thing that could also really make a difference...
In 2018, thirtyone:eight and Youthscape developed Safe? – a card-based game resource for youth ministry teams. We used our Innovation process to respond to the challenge of training and equipping all workers and volunteers to be better at safeguarding young people – and this resource was the result. It's a simple tool which enables participants to build a 'case' around a fictional young person, and then talk together about how and when it would be right to respond.
For example, a player might draw a card which tells them that a young person is showing strange bruises on their arms and legs. They can decide at this point whether they wish to monitor the situation, find out more, talk to the young person or refer to the safeguarding lead. Another card might develop the story to explain that the young person has recently taken up a contact sport, but then a third card may reveal another concerning sign. The picture will then develop – randomly – and participants will continue to decide how and when to act.
The idea is that building these case studies, which are different every time, teams of youth leaders will gain insight into how to spot signs and respond to concerns in the real world. Safe? is a fantastic resource for helping youth leaders to stay fresh in their thinking about safeguarding. It certainly does not replace safeguarding training, but it can provide a vital accompaniment, and one which every youth team can return to again and again in their mission to create safe spaces for young people.