Better Safe Than Sued
By Jack Crabtree
12 principles of safety every youth minister needs to know to create a safe youth-ministry environment and lessen your risk for litigation due to injury, consider teaching and modeling these safety principles. They can help you to be prepared for youth ministry situations in the future.
1. Higher risk requires greater supervision. Meetings each week in the church youth room require a 1-15 adult leader-to-student ratio. But a weekend hike in the wilderness probably requires a 1-4 ratio. Raking leaves at the home of a senior citizen may require a 1-10 ratio, while handing out bag lunches on an international missions trip may call for a 1-2 ratio.
2. What is dangerous? Read the list! Most liability policies list excluded and required activities. Obviously, activities that involve motorized vehicles, slippery surfaces, turbulent water and hitting people with any type of projectile deserve special attention before you decide to proceed with your plans.
3. Learn perceived versus actual danger. A “ropes” course, in which students walk a wire 20 feet off the ground, is both terrifying and thrilling. But a well-maintained course is very safe. By contrast, we’re complacent about water safety, yet 85 percent of fatal accidents in the wilderness involve water.
4. Plan for the worst-case scenario. The best training and preparation for an actual experience is discussing potential problem situations beforehand. Help leaders talk through all their options and prepare them to make decisions when the real-life events occur.
5. Recognize initial signs of danger. A great athlete has the ability to anticipate his or her opponent’s next move. The safety-smart youth leader anticipates danger. Recognizing the initial sign of danger gives the youth leader the advantage to intervene before the accident happens.
6. Note your group’s special needs. Learn to make safety decisions according to the particular needs of the kids in your group. If a student has a peanut allergy, you may need to restrict the snacks eaten in the church van and talk to the camp director about not serving peanut products to your group.
7. Test it first. Bring your great idea game, skit or crazy activity to life with a simulated trial run, using your staff as “crash test dummies.” This will help you see danger points and make changes before you present your idea to the youth group.
8. Resist shortcuts. If you’re running late, you’re more likely to skip checking the van’s fluids or printing instructions for drivers. Also, people will forget permission slips, first-aid kits and so on, but don’t let that pressure you to break safety rules.
9. Capitalize on mistakes. Make the most of mistakes. Minor accidents or near misses can be funny. But don’t just laugh about them. Debrief with other leaders and talk about what could be done to make things safer next time.
10. Take the “my kid” test. This means you treat each young person as if he or she were your own child. Don’t put any student in a situation in which you would not also place your son or daughter.
11. Lead by example. Leaders set the pace for volunteers when it comes to issues of safety, as well as for every other matter in youth ministry. Don’t bend the rules to appease your personal comfort or convenience.
12. Balance faith with wisdom. Pray for God’s protection, but exercise the thoughtful responsibility and common sense God has given to you. Don’t count on God to suspend the forces of nature and the laws of physics to protect you from the results of careless planning.
Jack Crabtree has worked with young people and youth leaders with Youth for Christ in Long Island, N.Y., for more than 35 years.