The goal is simple: Make churches safe for children.

Figuring out how is harder.

A new ministry based in Jacksonville has developed a tool it believes will set safeguarding standards, incentivize implementation, and establish a system of accountability. The Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention (ECAP) has launched an accreditation program—the first of its kind.

Evangelical churches and ministries that work with children can receive accreditation if they demonstrate compliance with five safety standards using an 80-point checklist that includes everything from basic background screening for nursery workers to a written policy on the proper response to abuse allegations. To maintain accreditation, churches and ministries will have to complete an annual review.

“Accreditation really is a form of accountability,” said ECAP executive director Jeff Dalrymple (no relation to Christianity Today president and CEO Timothy Dalrymple). “I think the missing piece in the child protection field is really a management problem—people not just having the knowledge but actually going and doing it.”

Dalrymple started working on child safety while working at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He developed policies for the Kentucky school’s summer camps and student daycare programs in 2012. Seven years later, the Houston Chronicle published its investigative series reporting more than 700 people had been abused by Southern Baptist pastors, youth ministers, and Sunday school teachers while denomination leaders closed their ears to victims. Like many, Dalrymple wrestled with how to stop abuse.

“Who’s going upstream to focus on prevention so that, so help us God, there are no more abuse victims?” he asked.

He decided he needed to do something, and, joined by Christian law experts Sally Wagenmaker and Theresa Sidebotham, founded ECAP in 2019.

The organization, which is not connected to any denomination, accredited its first church in January 2023. About two dozen more are in the process of demonstrating compliance with the safety standards, according to ECAP editor Briggham Winkler. ECAP hopes to have several hundred ministries pursuing accreditation by the end of the year.

Warren Cole Smith, president of Ministry Watch, said accreditation is a good way to set standards. “It becomes the straight stick you can hold down next to an organization to see whether it’s crooked,” he said. “But there are limitations to accreditation as a safeguard.”

Since accreditation is optional, ministries may choose to ignore it or even withdraw from a program without any stigma. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) started offering accreditation in 1979, and Smith keeps a close eye on ministries that drop off the ECFA’s membership list, for example. But it is rarely clear if someone just decided accreditation wasn’t worth the cost or if the ministry was removed for failing to adhere to the standards.

Accreditation may also create a “false sense of security,” Smith said. Organizations bearing ECFA’s “seal of integrity” haven’t all been immune from financial scandal, after all.

Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) had looked at starting an accreditation program but decided not to, according to executive director Pete Singer. The group was concerned the approach would encourage churches to focus too much on checklists and liability.

“There isn’t a way to certify or accredit the heart,” Singer said. “We strongly, strongly, strongly believe the key to creating a church that provides genuine, true safety—and in so doing reflects the heart of God—isn’t about a checklist or a list of requirements, but it’s about the heart.”

However, the process of accreditation and the mandated annual renewal may push congregations to make discussions about abuse a daily reality in the life of the church. That’s what has happened at the first ECAP-accredited congregation, Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, according to children’s pastor Jeremy Herron. The 80-point checklist revealed some weaknesses, but more importantly, it allowed people space to talk.

“People with abuse in their past, part of their story, told us about their experiences,” Herron said. “You hear the statistics that one in every four has been abused, but you don’t see them. When you do, it’s so impactful.”

Providence has become known, Herron said, “as a place that takes safety for kids seriously.”

Accreditation doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it brings more light to the issue of child safety, according to Herron, and more light is good.

“This is an area we’ve been too happy to leave in the dark,” he said. “And we see all throughout Scripture, the light will come into the darkness and shine.”

Daniel Silliman is Christianity Today’s news editor.

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