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Scouts and the UMCSC: A new future

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Churches to review Safe Sanctuaries policies, shift from charters to ‘agreements’

By Jessica Brodie

Scouting ministries have been part of Methodism for more than a century, and thanks to a new plan that puts emphasis on righting wrongs and ensuring protection of the vulnerable, it appears it will continue.

In February 2020, Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy after more than 82,000 sex abuse claims that go back decades, many involving chartering or sponsoring organizations of scout troops, including local United Methodist churches. Some 6,600 scouting units were chartered by UMCs as of May, making the denomination the largest partner of BSA programs.

After news broke, United Methodist leaders formed a committee to represent the denomination in the bankruptcy negotiations, working hard to craft a plan that would both help sex abuse survivors and carry on the scouting mission.

On July 29, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Laurie Selber Silverstein issued a lengthy ruling approving initial settlements of about $2.3 billion to abuse survivors. That includes a $30 million UMC contribution to the survivors’ fund, as well as a commitment to hear the experiences of survivors who participated in United Methodist-sponsored troops and a review of all UMC Safe Sanctuaries policies.

Now, United Methodist leaders and the BSA plan to continue as partners but in a new relationship that includes a new, standard affiliation agreement for local churches wanting to host a scouting group.

In South Carolina, United Methodist leaders are working actively to comply with this plan and have already begun work.

South Carolina UMC Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston said that while scouting has had a positive impact on the lives of many young people, much damage has been done as well.

“We also know that great harm has been inflicted on far too many of those youths by individuals who took advantage of the deep well of trust that our churches built up over the past century. That pain and betrayal can never be fully washed away,” Holston said.

However, Holston noted, “We feel that, moving forward, the potential for good in continuing our relationship with scouting will outweigh the risk of further harm, and we look forward to the opportunity to reclaim—day-by-day, encounter-by-encounter, relationship-by-relationship—the confidence and trust that has been eroded these past decades.”

On Sept. 22, Holston released a statement detailing what the South Carolina Conference is doing regarding scouting and the plan. (Read his statement in full at https://www.umcsc.org/scouting-ministry-has-a-future-in-umcsc-churches.)

• First, the conference has begun reviewing its Safe Sanctuaries policy. When complete, the conference will provide a process to help guide local churches in reviewing their own Safe Sanctuaries policies (more on this below);

• Second, the UMC is assembling a task force to allow victims a safe forum to share the abuse they endured. South Carolina Conference leaders will use the UMC task force’s plan as a guide, adapting it as needed to ensure it is providing a safe forum for survivors in our ministry context;

• Third, conference agencies approved honoring South Carolina’s share of the UMC’s $30 million contribution to the survivor settlement fund (currently set at $364,168); and

• Fourth, traditional charters (which is how the UMC used to organize its scouting units within the church) are no longer a viable option for local churches. The conference is now helping churches participate with scouting through two new legal options to ensure local UMCs can continue hosting and supporting scouting safely and responsibly if they wish. These options are the Affiliation Agreement and Facilities Use Agreement (more on this below).

Safe Sanctuaries reviews

In 1996, the UMC’s General Conference adopted a resolution aimed at eliminating any potential for child sexual abuse in the church. Since 2007, Safe Sanctuaries has been the South Carolina Conference’s policy for prevention against abuse in local churches. Safe Sanctuaries creates a culture of care and safety in churches and is an overt expression in making congregations safe places where children, youth and vulnerable adults may experience the abiding love of God and fellowship within the community of faith.

Once the conference has finished reviewing its Safe Sanctuaries policy, the conference Safe Sanctuaries Team will begin a process to “train the trainer” so that people in each district can help local churches across South Carolina evaluate their local policy and undergo training. The process is expected to begin in January.

According to the Rev. Cathy Joens, who is part of the South Carolina Annual Conference Safe Sanctuaries Team, “A Safe Sanctuaries policy gives us guidance on how to live our lives together in a healthy and safe way, helping us stay safe and be intentional about ministry.”

Rather than be a document that collects dust, Joens said each church should actively be using their policy and ensuring all leadership is fully familiar with it.

“It seems redundant, but consistent training builds muscle memory,” Joens said. “It should be used as a guide for recruitment, a guide for behavior and how we relate to one another.”

Those who are interested in being part of the Safe Sanctuaries training team in South Carolina are invited to participate in a “train the trainer” Zoom event led by Joens, the Rev. Katherine Crimm and Michael Smith on Sunday, Oct. 16, from 2-4 p.m. Other trainings will also be scheduled. Training will include best practices in a policy, update on social media and communication, bullying, outside groups, the conference website and how to work with a church from the first phone call to the training with questions.

If you are interested in helping with this or want more information, contact Joens at cljoens@umcsc.org. 

Joens said Safe Sanctuaries offers local churches, no matter their size, an opportunity to do ministry in intentional ways.

“Since 2007, we have moved from fear of losing all of our volunteers to becoming very intentional about how we go about ministering with children, youth and vulnerable adults,” Joens added. “We have learned more about abuse, and we have added new prevention updates along the way.” 

Agreements instead of charters

Holston explained that before the BSA issue, local churches served as scouting “chartered organizations.” Legally, that meant churches owned and operated their scouting units. But now, churches will not be chartered. Instead, they will select one of two new “agreements” to legally define their scouting relationship. Both of these agreements, Holston said, were tailored carefully to comply with and conform to liability insurance coverages that now exist.

1. Affiliation Agreement: With this type of relationship, the church agrees to support the scouting program through prayer, financial gifts and volunteer service. It will host a Scout Sunday, advertise the scouting program and volunteer needs, welcome scouts and provide opportunities for scouts to participate in the church’s youth programs, and promote religious awards. However, instead of the church owning and operating the scouting unit, all scouting assets will be transferred to the local Boy Scouts of America council, which would own the unit.

2. Facilities Use Agreement: With this type of relationship, the church simply hosts the scouting program. (The church can still support the ministry of scouting if so desired by providing space, storage, communication, membership growth, faith opportunities and opportunities to raise money.)

Holston said each church must decide which relationship is appropriate for their church—Affiliation or Facilities Use—carefully considering the insurance agreement that is in place and the level of commitment they believe can be sustained. (Those who need more guidance on this point should contact their district superintendent.)

Churches are asked to make this decision by Dec. 31.

He said through the General Commission on United Methodist Men, an interim agreement is in place that extends all insurance and indemnification protections through March 2023.

Churches can download fillable agreement forms at https://methodistscouter.org/conference-resource-page/

Compassion and security

One UMCSC pastor, the Rev. Weston Pendergrass, pastor of Grace UMC, Greer, has long worked with Safe Sanctuaries efforts and applauds the coming process to evaluate these policies conference-wide.

“It is sad that it takes something as awful as the BSA abuse and bankruptcy mess to prompt us to conduct such a huge effort to review and strengthen our Safe Sanctuaries practices, but I am glad that we have begun the work,” Pendergrass said.

As someone who has been helping congregations craft policies and train volunteers for several years now, Pendergrass said it never stops surprising him when he discovers how out of date or inadequate some congregations’ policies and procedures are. He said someone in each congregation always needs to be responsible for keeping up with the policy and making sure that it works.

“Just because you have one, the work isn’t done,” Pendergrass added. “Gaps always exist, but demonstrating that you regularly update and examine your practices shows that you are doing your absolute best to serve and protect everyone in your ministry. Not only do these policies help congregations screen out potential abusers, they also help congregations in other ways: maintaining safe and healthy environments of trust in which ministry can take place and relationships can flourish.

“A congregation that puts in this kind of work is a congregation that the surrounding community can trust. A congregation that shrugs off this hard work or only responds after an incident is unfortunately only going to lose that trust and may never get it back from their community, forever damaging their witness of the Gospel.” 

Holston said the South Carolina Conference is striving to maintain compassionate support for survivors of abuse, while safeguarding the security of local UMCs affected by the BSA bankruptcy case.

“Friends, we trust, believe and know that—despite human brokenness and frailty—God continues to work through us and within us,” Holston said. “Please join me in continuing prayers for all of those victimized by abuse, as well as the countless lay volunteers, and local church staff and clergy who remain committed to providing a safe space for youth to experience the love of Christ.”

To read Holston’s statement in full: https://www.umcsc.org/scouting-ministry-has-a-future-in-umcsc-churches

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