Jack Anderson (not his name) thought it could never happen — at least not at his church. The color drained from his face when he received the call that a police investigation was in progress due to a report of sexual misconduct from one of his volunteers.
The days of thinking nothing like this could ever happen at your church — or to the people your volunteers serve — have long since ended. As a result, the subject of church background checks has become a hot issue for churches today. To check — or not to check — is one of many questions children’s ministers are asking. Are criminal background checks really worth the expense? How can I get my volunteers to see the need — without offending their good intentions? And how in the world do I get started?
Worth the Expense
Churches weren’t asking these questions just a few years ago, but the recent attention to clergy pedophilia has forced the church to not only ask the questions, but to also come up with answers. Paul warned the Ephesians to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Background checks have become a new screening tool for the church to expose the darkness.
A survey conducted by Church Law and Tax Report found that church volunteers commit 50 percent of all incidents of sexual abuse in churches, paid staff commit 30 percent, and other children commit 20 percent. Many risk-consultant professionals agree that the church and other nonprofits are the predator’s last refuge. Perpetrators are looking for easy access to vulnerable children, youth, senior citizens, and people with disabilities, and often just knowing that a screening process is in place protects these vulnerable people.
If you’re like most people responsible for hiring and training volunteers, you take your responsibility very seriously, and would never endanger the children or teens in your church. In Background Check Programs: 8 Steps to Implementing Church Background Checks into your Christian Volunteer Programs and Church Volunteer Handbooks you’ll find the resources and help you need to take the first steps toward protecting your church.
The Volunteers for Children Act signed in 1998 states that you can be sued for negligent hiring if you have an incident with one of your volunteers or employees and you didn’t conduct a national search to look for a previous criminal record. So anyone who works with children at your church, paid or unpaid, should be on your list for mandatory personal background checks.
Seeing the Need
Performing criminal and personal background checks requires wisdom and patience in implementing. It’s a change your entire church will have to get used to. Here’s what others have learned from their efforts to create a safety-first culture.
Start with prayer. Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, serves about 1,500 children each week in their children’s program Grace Place. With a volunteer staff of 500, they felt the need to move forward in making their ministry safe for the children of their church and community. They started the process first with prayer.
“The entire leadership of the church spent time in prayer to discern God’s direction to move forward with our new child-protection policy,” explains Lori Rase, the assistant administrator to the children’s pastor.
Create a written policy. People need time to accept new ideas and methods of operation. Implementing a risk-management process, which includes background checks, must start with a written and approved policy.
Your written policy should explain the rationale for requiring background checks and which volunteer positions will be checked. Have the policy accepted and approved by your church’s governing board, and then incorporate it into your staff handbook (for paid and unpaid workers).
Create a safety-first culture. Creating a new policy doesn’t automatically mean people will buy into the change. You’ll need to create a culture that recognizes the need for proper risk-management screening.
Rase says their entire staff started the “buzz” within the church to promote their plans for a safer place. “It’s the glass half-empty or half-full syndrome,” explains Rase. “It’s not a witch hunt, so we wanted to communicate that this really was for the benefit of the ministry and the volunteers.”
Train your volunteers. Cherry Hills Community Church creates a safety-first culture through training. They sent letters to all their children’s ministry volunteers, inviting them to a special training class about the rationale and importance of implementing background checks.
“We were able to debunk some of the myths the people had ; like those who thought we were going to be checking their credit history,” Rase explains.
Training is also the key to volunteers accepting the change to background checks at Life Covenant Church in Edmond, Oklahoma. This church calls volunteers in their LifeKIDS ministry Cast Members and requires them to attend training before they serve.
“You don’t get to work in a room with children unless you are trained,” says Desiree Good, the director of LifeKIDS Central. The training includes risk-management procedures and begins the process of screening volunteers. “Screening helps them see we are serious about this ministry.”
Both of these churches have created a culture that communicates that kids are important — and the church cares about their protection.