Don't Forget the Forms!
Blog Post by Hansen Wendlandt
People will trust your vision if you handle the little things well. If parents don’t trust you to keep their kids safe, you’ll never be able to do the transformative ministry that called you to this career in the first place.
One of the little things that helps us keep youth participants safe is also one of the most boring and most annoying: forms.
Many parents/guardians are so overwhelmed with forms, that they don’t pay much attention to what they are filling out. Part of your job – and this can require some pastoral care – is to make sure they include all the pertinent information, and do it in a way that can be used in an emergency. That might mean you need to redesign your forms, or even move them to an online platform. That might mean you have a basic safety form for Sunday nights and a special form for trips. That might mean you need to consider a system for having copies available for volunteer leaders, as well as confidentiality for participants.
Over my 12 years as a youth leader, and now 5 years directing a mission program that welcomes youth groups, I have gone through many versions of better and worse forms. What we have landed on, and what we tweak every year, is our MERCI form. That stands for Medical, Emergency, Release, Covenant, and Information. Having one double-sided sheet, by that memorable name, with only and all the details we want, has increased compliance and streamlined our response in times of danger. Of course, we still have to hunt down forgotten signatures and follow up on empty blanks, but this simple paperwork has solved and prevented many problems.
Let’s go backward. The Information section is basic: names, participant date of birth, address, relevant phones and emails. You might think you know all of this, or have it saved in your own phone; but you are not always the only responsible adult with your young people. When a volunteer gets in a car accident, they should be able to contact parents immediately. When you can’t locate the new friend who tagged along for their first trip, go to your form, so you can text and find out what they’re up to.
The Covenant section is more pastoral than legalese. We have one part for young people to commit to being a positive participant, and another part for staff to commit to our own values and their effort. Very often on mission trips or at conferences, small groups will make their own covenants, but this small section has been helpful to get buy-in from young people. It shows we trust and respect them. And if behavior ever does become a problem, bringing out a signed covenant between a young person and pastor/youth worker can be a useful tool to reflect on what the goal of the trip is.
The Release section is the list of boring bullets that allows permission and limits liability. Some of those are pretty standard; others will depend on your context. Some can be worded more pastorally; for others you probably want to consult with someone who has a legal background. You’ll want to discuss with your church or Presbytery whether to have parents/guardians sign for permission that you give CPR in an emergency. Perhaps offer a place to opt out of using photos for fellowship or promotion. Hope that you never have to use this section! But taking it seriously is another way to signal to families that you care about safety.
The Emergency section is, straightforwardly, about who to contact in a crisis. We make that separate from parent/guardian information, so that some families might want to put a third contact, or for other families – perhaps those going through a difficult divorce – to clarify who has priority in a situation. The first time you send a sick teenager home with dad who is quick to answer but challenging for custody… you’ll understand why this is important.
Finally, the Medical section includes insurance information, allergies, and medications. You will have families that are hesitant to complete some of this, but the first time you bring a young person to urgent care, you’ll see how much faster it will go, if you do have full information! So build trust with your parents/guardians by following up about any medical concerns and checking in about insurance updates. If you don’t understand a medical condition (and you probably don’t), really listen and make notes for your other volunteers. If a family does not have insurance, have a frank conversation about their expectations, your responsibilities, and the church’s boundaries. For instance, you should not have to consider their situation, when deciding whether to call for an ambulance.
Our MERCI form is not a substitute for other safety measures. To have a safe trip, you still have to check your tires and ensure seat belts are used. You have to plan appropriate activities and watch for, ahem, youthful creativity. It’s great to get your youth leaders trained in First Aid and necessary to conduct background checks. You should broaden your sense of safety to include emotional and spiritual safety as well. But don’t forget the boring and annoying forms!
Click here to download the MERCI form.
Hansen Wendlandt serves as the pastor of Nederland Community Presbyterian Church in Nederland, Colorado, and the director of Rocky Mountain Mission.