The True Meanings of "Sanctuary" and "Sacred":

Making the local church safe and secure for all.

By Dayl Hufford, D.Min.

sanc - tu - ar - y (sangk?chú - er? i), n., pl. -ar - ies. 1. a sacred place. 2. part of a church around the altar. 3. a place of refuge or protection.

sa - cred (sa?krid), adj. 1. belonging to God; holy. 2. connected with religion. 3. worthy of reverence. 4. that must not be violated.

These two words are basic parts of our daily language used regularly to describe the places of worship, the instruments of worship, and the rituals of worship. In this article I to challenge you to consider the question, "How do these two words describe your church's understanding and regard for the people who worship in your church?" Today's churches and their leadership are careful stewards of material sacred objects. Communion silver is kept safely stored in safe deposit boxes. The sanctuary is kept locked to protect paraments and candelabra. The church office has restricted access to guard the computer and copy machine. There is, however, an alarming neglect of one of the congregation's greatest treasures: the persons, young and old, who come to participate in the mission and ministry of the church. The church stands uniquely and embarrassingly alone in the community with its low standards and priorities for safety, security, and protection. Ponder the following:

  • We are very careful about protecting access to our homes, yet churches generously, even recklessly, hand out keys to any and all who request one and keep sloppy, incomplete records of who has them.
  • We expect schools, scouts, recreation, and sports programs to carefully screen all teachers and leaders who have responsibility for children, yet churches eagerly accept the services of any and all who volunteer with neither screening nor reference checks.
  • We look to schools and daycare centers to provide safe facilities, furniture, toys, and resources for our children yet our church schools have old and out-dated hand-me-downs that often do not meet current safety standards.
  • We hire lawyers to protect our interests in purchase and sale agreements, mortgages, deeds, rental contracts, and wills, yet churches are notably naïve, even neglectful in attention to the legal aspects of Incorporation, Bylaws, and personnel policies and procedures.
  • We hold professionals in the community such as physicians, accountants, psychotherapists, attorneys, and teachers accountable for responsible use of their power and influence to consistently act on our behalf to provide us with the services we require from them. Yet we ignore the potential for church leadership to betray and harm with their power and influence and we are neglectful of our responsibilities when misconduct does occur in our midst.
  • We dutifully respect the boundaries of community professionals with regard to paying them in a timely manner, respecting their "office hours", and not asking them to work beyond their contract. Yet we regularly expect our clergy to work long hours, be separated from family on many holidays and almost all weekends, live in housing that we wouldn't think of living in ourselves, and pay them at near poverty levels for their ministry with us.

These are just a few of the unique dynamics of the church environment that leave precious assets and innocent people unnecessarily vulnerable to loss and abuse. The American Bar Association is actively providing training throughout the country to train lawyers to successfully sue churches. Churches historically have established and demonstrated the very highest community standards for ethical and moral environments of safety, security and sanctuary. Yet today the church is being scrutinized by and being held to a legal and insurance level of responsibility and accountability never before experienced by denominations and local congregations. The complexities of laws and insurance liabilities impact on all areas of the ministries and missions of the local church. Ignorance is neither defense for protection against potential litigation.

Look again at the definitions of "sanctuary" and "sacred." Congregations have been remiss in applying these definitions only to "the big room where we worship communally." The church is challenged to thoughtfully reflect on the theological, spiritual, and emotional depths of these two words. When a congregation has the courage and resources to look deeply and seriously at how it regards all persons, as well as property, as sacred, and how "sanctuary" is more than a room, the most profound experiences of the church as an expression of the teachings of Jesus are possible. For only then can persons safely allow themselves to be truly vulnerable to the spiritual quest for and response to God's loving Word. For too long church leaders have hidden their heads in the sands of

  • "But we're a CHURCH! Nothing will happen here."
  • "It's difficult enough to get volunteers now! We'll never get anyone to teach church school or volunteer with the youth if we put each volunteer to this kind of scrutiny."
  • "We refuse to be scared or led by the courts. We answer to a higher authority."
  • "(Name of long-time church servant and/or big giver) has had a key for years. We wouldn't think of insulting them by asking them to return their key."
  • "We can't afford costly upgrading and improvements to our physical plant. This is an old building and replacing all the doors in the church school is just too expensive and not even necessary."
  • "Our church has gotten along just fine the way it is for generations. We don't need to start monkeying with things now."
  • "I don't even know if we need to be incorporated."
  • "Nobody ever pays attention to our bylaws anyway. Most of us don't even know what they are. If we do, we don't understand them."
  • "Of course, anything I tell my pastor is confidential and privileged!"
  • "We don't need to concern ourselves with standards of labor laws and practice. Our church secretary, sexton, and music director are all members of the church and they would never expect us to."
  • "We're a church. We don't have to pay any taxes."
  • "We can rent our facilities to anyone we please."
  • "Of course our pastor can do counseling. Isn't that part of seminary training?"

Sadly, one of the ways I express my ministry is by consulting to churches when they have had difficulties. I also serve as an expert witness in matters concerning professional misconduct and fiduciary duties of churches. Every week I meet with churches, pastors, lay leadership, and denominational judicatories who are facing the reality of the great costs of believing the statements above. The costs are far dearer than just financial. The real tragic expenses of this kind of ignorance are the trust, faith, security, sanctuary, and sacredness of those individuals and congregations who have been harmed. Failure to be educated and informed about these matters amounts to neglect of our sacred trusts and responsibilities. Every congregation, individual, pastor, leader, or denominational official that I consult with expresses it this way: "If only I/we had known before what we have had to learn the hard way. Then this never would have happened. I/we would give anything to be able to turn back the clock and do things right."

Some of the problem lies in the fact that pastors, denominational officials, and lay leadership do not have the resources available to provide themselves with the learning and experience necessary to prevent tragedies. Neither traditional seminary training nor leadership orientation has offered training in the following important areas of providing "Sanctuary and Sacredness" in the local church:

  • Fiscal and fiduciary responsibilities
  • Employee hiring and supervision
  • Volunteer recruitment and supervision
  • Building and property management and maintenance
  • Religious education policies and procedures
  • Responsibilities to report abuses
  • Church incorporation and bylaws as legal entities
  • Personnel law for local churches
  • Church financial risk management
  • Confidentiality and privileged communications

Recognizing the need for these resources, Andover Newton Theological School and the New England Pastoral Institute, Inc. provide a yearly conference that brings together experts from all around the nation on the legal, practical, and theological dimensions of these topics. Our conference is recognized by most denominations and church insurers as the leader in presenting timely and accurate legal information in the light of thoughtful theological reflection. For more information, contact us.

Rev. Dr, Dayl Hufford is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, a Licensed Pastoral Psychotherapist and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. She is a member of the adjunct faculty of Andover Newton Theological School. Dr. Hufford serves as Clinical Director of the New England Pastoral Institute and the United Pastoral Counseling Centers.