Why Your Church Should Prioritize Staff and Volunteer Background Checks

by | Security, Security Connections, volunteers

Let’s talk about background checks. I know you don’t want to, because I felt that eye roll you just busted out. The fact that we need to do background checks on our staff and volunteers reminds us that there are people out in the world who are willing to do some pretty bad things. And we really don’t want to think that some of them might actually be in our church. Yet we owe it to the people we serve to remember that not all souls who want to serve in our churches come with pure intentions.

We live in an era punctuated by fear of active shooter situations. They are scary but, thankfully, still relatively rare. Although those tragic events get a lot of attention when they happen, churches are much more likely to be called upon to deal with problems like child sexual abuse, theft, or domestic violence. The church needs to lead the way in dealing with sinful behavior that has turned or might turn into criminal behavior. 

Protecting members of our congregation and our guests isn’t the only reason to run background checks. An honestly good reputation in our communities is vital to being effective as a church. One mishap can result in a reputational hit that we might never recover from. So how can churches communicate the expectation that the safety of our flocks will be taken very seriously? By consistently using background checks to screen both staff members and volunteers. 

Added benefits

We are shepherds who have to watch out for the wolves who work their way into our flocks. Let’s look at some added protection that running background checks will give us. 

  • The prospect of having a check run on them may deter people with bad intentions. 
  • Background checks are also a risk management tool that can help manage potential liability. 
  • Background checks ensure that people entrusted with their care of children, youth, or vulnerable adults have no documented history of harmful behavior.
  • Churches manage donations, offerings, and other monetary transactions. A background check can alert you that someone has a history of financial fraud or embezzlement.
  • If an incident occurs and no background checks were done, the liability could be devastating. Ask your insurance provider if checks would reduce your premiums.
  • Besides the congregation, churches have physical and financial assets to protect.

Know who’s doing the checking

Are all background checks created equal? No. While it might be tempting to run your own “background check” on a website like BeenVerified, Spokeo, TruthFinder, or another similar site, you have to know what you’re getting for your money. These sites only search publicly available, online records. Believe it or not, not every state or local jurisdiction has made their records available online! There are thousands of state and federal courthouses in the United States, and each of these courthouses maintains its own database of criminal records. Your best practice to get the best, most complete information would be to hire an outside company to perform your background check.

The level of background checks conducted by churches should match the responsibilities and potential risks associated with each role. There are different levels and types of background checks available but these cover the basics that any provider you choose should do:

  1. Criminal Background Checks: This is the most common type of check, which looks for any criminal convictions. It’s crucial for anyone working with youth, adults, handling financial assets, or in other positions of trust. 
  1. Sex Offender Registry Checks: Churches should run checks against the sex offender registry for all employees and volunteers, regardless of their role, to ensure the protection of everyone, particularly children and vulnerable adults.
  1. Credit Checks: For anyone handling monetary assets or making financial decisions in the church, a credit check can provide insight into their financial behavior.
  1. Previous Employment and Reference Verification: This check can reveal more about a person’s character, reliability, and experience. 
  1. Motor Vehicle Record Checks: If the staff or volunteers will be driving as part of their role – transporting members or youth – then checking their driving record is important.

You should always get a signed authorization for you to run these checks to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Remember, the purpose of these checks is not to judge people. Background checks are a tool to uphold the safety, integrity, and trustworthiness of your church. 

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus told his disciples to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves”. We can and must be aware that there are dangers facing our church. Being in denial serves no one well, and neither does living in fear. As with most things, we need a healthy balance. 

Remember Aesop’s fable The Farmer and the Viper? In the dead of winter, a farmer came across a viper freezing in the snow. Instead of accepting the reality of the viper’s nature, he held it close to him inside his coat to warm the creature. Once revived, the viper bit the farmer, because that’s what vipers do. As he lay dying, the farmer said that he got what he deserved for being kind to something so evil. The farmer didn’t have the correct balance of shrewdness and innocence.

Background checks help us be shrewd by knowing who we are dealing with. We remain innocent because we are using background checks as a tool to advance the Gospel rather than advance our own agendas. As contemporary shepherds, we must tend our flocks diligently, mirroring the care and love the Good Shepherd showers on us.

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