There was a time when church child care regulations were fairly lax.
Virtually anyone from the congregation could volunteer to work the nursery and keep babies occupied while the parents enjoyed Sunday morning worship, some Charleston area pastors said.
But over the past few decades, the exposure of child abuse in houses of worship has forced congregations to further prioritize the safety of minors. Denominations and religious groups, like the Unitarian Universalist Association, which has a Safe Congregations guide to protecting parishioners, now have strict policies for their nursery and youth departments.
“The days are gone when you just got your congregation together and said 'We need some people to watch the kids,' " said the Rev. Dick Broomall, who pastors Grace United Methodist Church in West Ashley.
Today, those who care for infants and children at churches must complete several training programs and processes, such as Darkness to Light, which aims to prevent child sexual abuse, along with CPR, first aid and background checks. But with these rigorous requirements, some congregations are struggling to find employees to work their nurseries.
Some potential hires are simply turned off by the strict policies for a part-time job.
Many church nurseries are open only Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings when parents are either in worship or choir practice, freeing the adults to fully engage in the service.
The Rev. Spike Coleman, who leads St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in West Ashley with a nursery of about two children, said the church was recently without a nursery employee for three months. One of the applicants didn't like the fact that the position required CPR and first aid training.
“She felt it was just a babysitting job," Coleman said. "It was more than she thought and expected.”
But the requirement is important, particularly because one of the children at St. Andrew's has food allergies, Coleman said.
For other potential employees, committing to the job every weekend was an issue.
"We found someone that was great ... but she wound up working seven days a week. Something had to give," Coleman added.
The church has since hired someone to take care of both Sunday morning and Wednesday evening child care needs.
Other churches seem to have similar issues as well.
Senior Pastor Joshua Pegram serves Ashley River Baptist Church, which recently advertised for a child care worker. Pegram, who has served congregations in Greenville and Chicago, said stricter requirements have led to some difficulty in finding child care workers.
He said while people appreciate the protections, they're not always willing to do the paperwork.
“It’s certainly been a challenge when you raise the bar," Pegram said. “Not everyone is willing to go through the process.”
Grace United Methodist said the church simply struggled to get the word out about the child care openings. Broomall said it took months for a recent opening to get any applicants.
Some larger congregations are finding success, though. James Island Presbyterian brings in around 400 worshippers each Sunday with a nursery department of five staff members overseeing 25 children.
People are generally excited to be part of the big, thriving congregation, said the Rev. Sam Martin, who pastors the church. They haven't had issues in attracting qualified staff to care for the children.
"The Lord’s doing something," Marin said. "People want to be a part of it.”
Martin added that some parents even opt to keep their child with them in church, citing the importance of the entire family worshipping together.
To help with their hiring troubles, groups have revamped their recruiting efforts. At Grace, they used social media to expand their reach.
Smaller congregations that can't afford to pay nursery employees rely on church volunteers who still go through background checks and an application process, said Pegram who previously served a church where he was the only paid employee.
Nonetheless, churches aren't apologizing for taking the steps to protect children. They view nurseries as a place where even infants can grow closer to God through playtime in a safe environment.
"We have high standards. We cannot lower our standards," Coleman said. “Child protection and child safety are part of our calling.”