On a typical Wednesday night at South Mountain Community Church in Draper, about 60 teenagers are gathered for youth group. There’s loud music playing over the speakers, lots of chatter and a very competitive foosball game in the corner of the room.
The youth night vibe is typical for a non-denominational Christian church: laid back, casual. But at SMCC they are anything but laid back when it comes to keeping the youth in this room safe.
In the past year, a rekindled national dialogue has focused on child and youth safety in religious settings, driven in part by revelations of abuses by Catholic priests, sexually explicit questions in a Mormon bishops office or #metoo accounts with pastors of megachurches. But SMCC is one church that hasn’t taken any chances when it comes to protecting children.
In fact every adult volunteer in the room — and there are a lot of them — has undergone a background check through Utah’s Department of Public Safety. Youth pastor Shane Lingo sees vetting the volunteers as one of the most critically important parts of his job.
“You can’t safely assume that just because someone walks through the doors of the church or is even a member of the church is a safe person,” Lingo said. “You have to take that extra step to be sure.”
Background checks are common for many non-denominational churches, and while it isn’t new for this 20-year-old place of worship, it’s becoming more and more relevant as stories of abuse continue to make headlines.
Kama Maendl, a mother of three, has been attending SMCC with her family for over 10 years. When asked if she feels like her children are safe at church she didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” she said.
“They’re just wise on who they bring in to work with my children,” Maendl continued, “I value the relationship that my children have built with the adults here.”
Maendl’s son Jeshua, a high school sophomore, said he agrees with his mom. He also brought up that youth volunteers and pastors don’t chat with teenagers one-on-one, particularly when it comes to sensitive topics, like sex.
Lead pastor Rick Henderson said he goes out of his way to make sure everyone, especially his staff, internalize all of these safeguards.
“I don’t think people should trust me because I’m the pastor. I want to be the pastor because people trust me,” Henderson said. “I think I have to earn people’s trust.”
Another policy at SMCC is that each volunteer and staff member acts as a mandatory reporter. What that means is if a teenager confides that they’ve been contemplating suicide or have been abused, the pastor or volunteer must report it to The Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).
Many clergy in other churches have been given leniency when it comes to mandatory reporting. But at SMCC they take it seriously.
“It’s not always an easy thing,” Henderson said. “We’ve even lost a family over this.”
Henderson remembers a time when one of the teenagers told their youth pastor about abuse happening in the home. The youth pastor checked with Henderson, and he said they needed to report it.
When the mother found out, she and was very upset — she did not want Henderson to report the abuse.
He told her, “We have to.’” Because of that, the family stopped attending.
“No pastor wants anyone to leave their church. That’s always a painful thing for us, “Henderson said. “I guess that is a risk we have to take in order to do what is right and most loving.”
There have also been times when Henderson has dismissed volunteers for behaving or speaking inappropriately and he’s even fired staff.
At one point during his 20-year career, there was a situation where the teenage girls at church were uncomfortable with a certain leader on staff. It was consistent enough that Handerson saw no way to resolve the situation.
“They never did anything wrong but I had to let this person go,” Henderson said.
This no-nonsense approach goes above and beyond what is expected of a religious group in Utah. In fact, it’s above and beyond what’s expected of churches in most states.
According to a 2015 U.S Department of Health and Human Services report, only 28 states clearly require clergy to act as mandatory reporters and the majority of those states have granted special privileges for “pastoral communications,” meaning some clergy have been given a pass when they’ve dropped the ball.
Some would say this needs to change — the laws need to change. Zach Hiner sees it a little differently. As the executive director for SNAP, which stands for ‘Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests,’ Hiner, who is Catholic, doesn’t want to wait around for his church or state governments to change their policies.
“The point is not to wait for the government to come in and mandate it,” he said.
He said he believes parishioners and churchgoers have to demand change on the local level, no matter their faith. They also need to start looking at clergy differently.
“One different way we can view our clergy is not as arbiters of everything,” Hiner said
Clergy should be seen as spiritual advisors — period, Hiner said. Everything else should be left up to other professionals — therapists, social workers and police.
For Rick Henderson, he sees a biblical lesson in all of this. It‘s something he often preaches from the pulpit.
Henderson is constantly asking the question, “What does love require of me?” For him, it means he doesn’t take any chances with youth safety. He holds himself and his church to the same standard that applies to schools and hospitals.
Rather than ask for an exemption, Henderson is trying to set the standard.