Recently, a United Methodist pastor in New York shared a disturbing story of pedophiles watching videos of his church’s children’s moments. These clips had been posted online for families to view remotely. Apparently, the videos had racked up tens of thousands of views as pedophiles shared them for moments when the children exposed their undergarments, as squirmy children are prone to do when sitting on the ground or upon a chancel step.

While we haven’t heard of anything similar happening to one of our churches in the Northwest, this story is a reminder that our vigilance in protecting vulnerable members ought to extend to our online worship presence as much as it does when we are all gathering in person. Please consider the following advice as you continue to find ways to actively include remote members and guests.

Click to view a larger version. Credit: Teri Tobey, PNW Conference
  • Be proactive in communicating when church activities are being recorded or live-streamed. While individuals may not have a legal right to privacy in a public setting, it is a good practice to clearly share that cameras are present, so people aren’t caught off guard.
  • Identify a space in your sanctuary that is designated as off-camera and make sure your ushers/greeters are aware of it so they can offer that seating to members or visitors who express any discomfort or preference. Likely, you may already have a spot in your sanctuary that cameras can’t reach or aren’t likely to be trained upon.
  • Remember, beyond comfort, some of the people who attend your church may have other good reasons not to be on camera. For example, in youth ministry, I’ve encountered several families where a parent did not want their former spouse/partner to know where they were living due to safety and/or privacy concerns.
  • Try to avoid fully identifying young people who may appear in your livestream as they contribute to the worship service. If you identify liturgists, musicians, etc., and include children and youth in your worship, consider using a last initial onscreen and in digital bulletins you distribute.
  • Use caution when broadcasting children’s moments and other activities with young people. Choose camera angles that focus on the pastor or other adult leader, ideally one where it is harder to see or identify the children who are coming forward. Alternatively, use a wide sanctuary shot where all the participants are smaller and less likely to be fixated upon.
  • Related, consider the staging of moments like children’s time for both your online and in-person audiences. For example, in some churches, the pastor/leader sits with their backs to the congregation so members can see the children who come forward. This makes it more likely that a child might innocently expose themselves, and it also makes it less likely that the pastor/leader has the children’s full attention, as the kids can also see the entire congregation.
  • For those with access to online viewing metrics, check to see if any of your church’s videos have thousands more views than you would expect. If you discover this and can’t figure out why or suspect something malicious is afoot, contact your conference communicator for assistance in determining the next steps.
  • Finally, work with your tech team/volunteers to have a plan for when a child (or adult) does something that a predator might fixate upon. Most streaming platforms allow for some editing after-the-fact. If yours doesn’t, consider finding one that does.

The pandemic disrupted several of our normal patterns. In some churches, this may have included habits and practices we have had in place to keep vulnerable children, youth and adults safe as they participate in the ministry opportunities we share. As disturbing as it might be to think about online pedophiles reviewing videos of worship services to fixate on children, we are negligent if we imagine the risk is solely online. Use this moment to review your safe sanctuary policy, consider where your practices may have softened, and how they may need to be adapted to the new things your ministry and other building users are doing today.

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Patrick Scriven
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary-educated layperson working professionally in The United Methodist Church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications.


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