Student safety a top priority at Zona Camp
By Kimberly McMahon, Photos by Christian Challenge | Feb 13, 2023
As the church, it should be our priority to protect the vulnerable.
The Zona Team — comprised mainly of youth ministers who plan Zona Camp — takes this calling seriously, spending each year preparing to create the safest place for students to hear the Gospel and making sure safety policies are followed.
Chad Murrell, lead pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Scottsdale and Zona Camp director, said the safety surrounding students at camp is of the highest priority.
The first safety requirement implemented by the Zona Team was a simple background check that leaders and volunteers are required to complete every three years.
“We initially took the word of the churches that the checks were done,” said Murrell, a member of Arizona Southern Baptists’ Sexual Abuse Response Team.
Seeing the need for further accountability, the Arizona Mission Network of Southern Baptists made the decision that background checks for all volunteers throughout all ministry areas — including Zona volunteer leaders — needed to be run through the network.
The most recent safety precaution requires sexual abuse training for any adult on campus for Zona. This hour-long training, which includes a short test, must be completed every two years.
Murrell admits there has been minor pushback as these precautions have been implemented.
“It’s new. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable,” he said. However, Zona leaders have held firm to the safety policies and procedures.
Training the Zona Crew
Training for the Zona Crew — college students recruited by Christian Challenge from Arizona and partnering states to serve at camp — goes well beyond the simple background check and one-hour training required for adults going to camp with their students.
“Christian Challenge is in partnership with Zona Camp to ensure the safest environment possible for our churches and their youth,” said Lainee Pegelow, missions coordinator for Christian Challenge AZ and leader of the Zona Crew.
Days before camp begins, Zona Crew arrive early for a variety of training sessions.
“A major portion of time is dedicated to child safety: knowing what to be aware of, reporting protocols and how, as adults, [Zona Crew are] to conduct themselves while serving in this ministry,” Pegelow said.
Safety while at camp
Safeguards before camp are not the only precautions Zona staff take. While at camp, there is a strict two-adult policy.
At no time are a student and adult to be alone together. No exceptions.
The Zona Team is always available to help churches make accommodations by pairing up churches if group ratios make following this rule difficult.
The first night of camp, all adults attend a meeting to discuss expectations and policies. The Zona Team reminds these leaders of the two-adult policy and the no-tolerance consequences.
“Any violation can result in the adult’s removal from camp,” Murrell said.
Rules are also in place for response time during worship, a time when students can be emotionally vulnerable.
As a precaution, students are paired with a staff member of the same sex to talk students through their responses. Professional staff is also available to address some of the harder topics.
Responding to allegations
While Zona Camp itself has not been the subject of allegations, there is a rigid, intentional procedure in place to respond to allegations of abuse that may have occurred in other areas of a student’s life.
Camp can be an emotional time for students, and Zona gives them a safe place to walk through past or present trauma.
Murrell, as camp director, and licensed counselors talk with the student and report to law enforcement.
“Reporting takes a bit of homework, because camp is held in Riverside, California,” Murrell said. “We make sure we have a list of local law enforcement.”
Licensed counselors for students are provided by Arizona Baptist Children’s Services & Family Ministries.
Giving these students opportunities to talk to counselors at camp starts the healing process before they even get home. Partnering with ABCS has allowed students to talk to someone — maybe for the first time — about abuse that has happened. Then, they can return home and continue the same services long term.
Ultimately, the purpose of camp is for students to hear the Gospel, repent and follow Jesus. Every decision is made to create a safe place for students to do this.
Adults have expressed appreciation for Zona Camp’s policies, and pastors have wanted to implement them in their churches. Here are some steps Chad Murrell recommends to churches to protect children and students:
- Conduct background checks;
- Implement a two-adult policy;
- Be prepared to have hard conversations;
- Get creative with staffing; and
- Be ready to stand firm.
Kimberly McMahon, a freelance writer living in Phoenix, is a member of Mission Valley Church in Phoenix.