Creating safe faith spaces online – how digital safeguarding works in practice

06 February 2023

Safer Internet Day is celebrated around the world. In this blog, Elliot Crippen, Digital Enabler for Yorkshire North & East District, shares how digital safeguarding needs to be applied to create safe spaces for faith online and  how this works in practice in the church.

You may think that online safety only applies to teenagers, however, it’s an important topic for everyone, including the church, even if you don’t have a youth group. You may be used to a focus on the possible dangers of social media, but there are also many day-to-day digital activities that require us to follow best practice. Does your church have a website? A Facebook Page? Email newsletter? Live stream? Take photos or videos? Do individuals in your church communicate on WhatsApp, in Facebook Groups, or on Zoom? We live in a digital age, and it impacts every aspect of our church life – and thus it impacts safeguarding as well.

The church is unique in the way it operates. For many secular charities, businesses, and organisations, there are clear boundaries for operating in the online space. However, unlike a school, we don’t have the clear separation of teacher and student. In a church context we encourage a mixed community; where young and old journey together in faith; those in the church seek to serve those outside the church; bringing together the fortunate with those on the margins; and in Methodism we promote lay leadership in all areas of our work. When does a volunteer become a leader? An unofficial friends WhatsApp group become an official church group? A conversation on social media become an argument?  When does Safeguarding apply? – you begin to see that the lines are blurred, our definitions are vague, and trying to apply safeguarding in an online context is complicated.

So, whilst the dangers might be different to those affecting children and young people, churches still need to mitigate the risks. We can do that by applying our safeguarding processes, adapted to work in an online setting.

How does this work in practice? This is the question many began to ask as we entered the pandemic. As churches began using Zoom and live streaming, there was an awareness that guidance across the board was lacking in a church context and most related to creating safe spaces for children and young people. There was guidance for running a youth group on Zoom, but what about a mixed community Facebook Group? Consent for adults in live streams? Safer recruitment for volunteers who are operating the tech or managing our social media? And so, as part of my role as a digital expert, I got together with our district safeguarding expert and came up with a Digital Safeguarding Best Practice Reference Document – a comprehensive list of FAQs that provides suggestions on how creating safe space online works in practice.

Much of it is straightforward, even if not currently implemented – for example, safer recruitment of social media admins, just as you would with any church volunteer role. On the other hand, it’s not about box ticking. There is an assumption sometimes that we just need to get the settings right, or use the right technology, and we’ve created a safe space. But that’s not always the case. How do you avoid Zoom bombers? It’s not just about having a password or waiting room enabled. There are multiple approaches, but to keep it a safe space we must have the knowledge and skills to act if something were to go wrong. It’s less about having a password, and more about the Zoom host knowing how to mute or remove someone from the meeting.

This guidance isn’t just for ministers or those technically minded, it’s for all of us. Just as safeguarding in our buildings is the responsibility of everyone, all of us need an understanding of how to create safe spaces online. Individuals posting in a Facebook Group or WhatsApp Group need to understand what they can share with permission, being attentive to personal and sensitive information of others. In other words, everyone needs a basic understanding of copyright, GDPR, and confidentiality. All these things factor into creating safe spaces. It’s not policing or more “red tape”, but a best practice to enable everyone to be safe and flourish.

On this Safer Internet Day I encourage you to consider how you and your church engages online, and you’re welcome to access our digital safeguarding document as a reference. Let’s continue to talk about how we keep our online faith spaces safe.


Elliot Crippen
Digital Enabler and District Safeguarding Group Member
Yorkshire North & East Methodist District
Co-author of “Digital Safeguarding Best Practice Reference Document”