Vaccines are a hot topic. Before I go into my thoughts about vaccines at church, I think it’s only fair to share my personal stances: I am pro-vaccine for my family. I have read mounds of research, and I’m fully convinced of their effectiveness and role in advancing modern public health. Our family also has several members who are immune deficient – one by HIV (my child), one by taking immune-suppressing drugs for an autoimmune condition (that’s me), and a few due to asthma (me and some kiddos). I believe research proves that herd immunity is a real thing, so I’m thankful when those around us are vaccinated.
All that said, I don’t think churches should have vaccine policies (which Steve recommended in this post). Here’s why:
- Enforcing a vaccine policy at church would be a mess.
Do visitors gets to come a certain number of weeks before they have to produce records? How do we decide who gets a legit pass for not being able to have vaccines and who doesn’t because we decide their reasons are more of a choice than a need? Which alternative schedules are okay with us and which aren’t? What about the flu shot? How about children who have recently received live vaccines and might shed the virus to others; will they be excluded from church too, and if so, for how long?
Is this really the cross on which we want to hang our identity as a children’s ministry?
- We don’t ask for medical records about anything else.
Our school system’s kindergarten physical form includes a question about other health conditions present in our home, and I’m the snarky mama who writes, “Any medical diagnoses in other members of our family are completely irrelevant to this child’s education, and I find this question to be inappropriate.” I’m pretty sure asking parents for vaccine records before entering children’s ministry will have some parents lose their religion for a moment and say something like “%$*# you” as they pivot toward the exit. Honestly, even though I have those records for each of my kids, I might feel the same way because I loathe paperwork and have to produce enough of it elsewhere. Church is a safe place from that for me.
- Creative ministry can figure out other ways to protect kids who might be at risk.
In cases in which a child – for example, a cancer patient – cannot be around unvaccinated children, more thoughtful policies can create separate spaces/classes to accommodate that child in a group of kids who are vaccinated. When done well, all children could be included with both protection for the child who needs it and permissiveness for other parental choices.
For example, we had a separate Sunday school class for a while for a little guy whose mitochondrial disorder meant his immune system couldn’t function properly, so other kids were risky for him. Is that our norm? No. But we did it because it was necessary for him and his family to come to church.
- Vaccine injuries are real, albeit rare.
One reason I rarely join in the vaccine fights online is my friend Melissa. Her son Christian passed away two years ago from a brain tumor, but he also had autism and some other complications. His doctors believed some of his neurological issues were due to a rare, severe vaccine reaction. Do I think these reactions are common? No. Does Melissa’s experience and my love for her son Christian make me change my mind about vaccinating my own children? No. But does it make me pause and consider how unloving and hurtful my pro-vaccine stances might feel to families like hers? Yes.
A recent blog post called out Focus on the Family for a pro-vax article in their magazine. That post (which I think was poorly researched, so I won’t link to it here) argued that negative vaccine reactions aren’t rare because of the money doled out for vaccine injuries, but if you look at the number of individual cases rather than the dollar amounts, you could just as easily use those numbers to prove the point that such injuries are uncommon. But as the church, should that matter to us? Why not say that it doesn’t matter if vaccine injuries are rare because we should care about those families too, even if they aren’t the common cases?
- We’d be turning people away from church.
When I entered disability ministry, I didn’t have a child with any special needs diagnosis. I didn’t have a personal stake, not in the same way I do now. But I saw families being turned away from church, and I just couldn’t stand for that. Exclusion isn’t part of God’s design for the church or true to the gospel we say we believe is good news for all.
Is safety a major issue for the church? Yes. Do we occasionally turn people away from the church due to safety? Yes, in rare cases like individuals on the sex offender registry, for example (though churches work to creatively engage them in ways that also respect local laws). But excluding unvaccinated or undervaccinated children would mean turning away a significant group of families.
In a world in which the church is often identified more by what we oppose than by the Christ we love, I’m not interested in joining another fight in which we draw lines of unwelcomeness.
Shannon Dingle provides consultation, training and support to pastors, ministry staff and volunteers from churches requesting assistance from Key Ministry. In addition, Shannon regularly blogs for Key Ministry on topics related to adoption and foster care, and serves on the Program Committee for Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s Disability Ministry Web Summit. Shannon and her husband (Lee) serve as coordinators of the Access Ministry, the Special Needs Ministry of Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
Check out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.
Nice post. I would like the honor of the first response.
If folks read yesterday’s post and came away with the impression that churches in general should be asking families for vaccination records before letting kids into Sunday School or VBS, that’s most definitely NOT what I was trying to convey. I’d only CONSIDER asking about vaccination status if I knew (or had strong reason to suspect) my church was serving kids with medical conditions that enhance their risk of serious complications from childhood diseases like measles AND I had reason to believe that “herd immunity” didn’t exist in the environments where groups of kids congregate.
For those who are interested, here’s a journal article that tells you everything you’d want to know about “herd immunity.” http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/52/7/911.full
The idea is that when a certain threshold level of the population has developed immunity to an infection disseminated by random contact, persons without immunity still enjoy a high degree of protection. The percentage of the population necessary to convey herd immunity is different for each infectious agent…for measles, that percentage has been thought to be in the 90-95% range. Events like the Disneyland measles outbreak take place when people carrying the disease are in close proximity to lots of other people without immune protection. In yesterday’s post, I linked to an article describing the extraordinarily low vaccination rates among kids in very affluent areas of Southern California. That’s why I’d guess the epidemic took place at Disneyland (Anaheim, CA) instead of Disney World (Orlando, FL). The outbreak in Texas took place at a church where a very influential leader had been outspoken in his criticism of vaccination.
In looking into this further, we may be at greater risk of problems with “herd immunity” in the Christian community. In California, the rate of personal belief exemptions in the average Christian school (6.74%) is roughly three times the rate in public schools (2.33%). Data in Michigan isn’t broken down by faith-based status of private schools, but immunization rates are about 7% lower in private schools.
Again, I’m not saying we should be establishing policies to keep kids out of church who aren’t vaccinated, but children’s ministry leaders should at least be aware of our vulnerability in areas susceptible to outbreaks because of the absence of herd immunity.
Thanks for the clarification, Steve! I understood your meaning, but I wanted to give a response to those who didn’t, realizing the passion around this topic. Understanding the vulnerability of some populations on both sides is hugely important in ministry. Thanks specifically for sharing the info about Christian schools vs. public ones; I hadn’t considered that, and it certainly gives reason for addressing this specifically to Christian populations.
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