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Seven Steps for Effective Background Screening
By: Bob D’Ambrosio

Imagine your worst-case scenario. You discover that one of your youth ministry volunteers hid a history of sexual abuse and you never knew about it—until it was too late.  You didn’t think it could ever happen—at least not at your church. According to GuideOne Insurance, in a typical year, statistics show that 1 in 100 churches will experience an allegation of sexual misconduct.

The days of thinking that nothing like this could happen at your church have long since passed. Churches weren’t asking these questions just a few years ago. Recent attention to clergy sexual misconduct has forced the church to not only ask the questions, but also to act with diligence to protect the people it serves. Paul warned the Ephesians to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” [Eph. 5: 11] Background checks have become the new screening tool of 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 is now the pedophiles’ last refuge because screening doesn’t exist in many churches.

In a recent Barna study sponsored by GuideOne, only 57 percent of the pastors who were polled said their church conducts background and reference checks on those who work with children and youth. Failing to screen out a potential predator may not only bring harm to those in your care, but also cause damage to your reputation in the community, in addition to the financial strain of a potential lawsuit. (The average jury award for negligent hiring is more than $8,000,000.)

The courts describe an organization’s screening responsibility as “due diligence,” meaning you did everything expected in the screening process to demonstrate you weren’t negligent in placing someone in a position in which he or she could harm another person. This would apply to those who work with vulnerable groups, such as children, youth, the elderly, and the disabled.

So, how do you implement the process of background checking? Here are seven steps to get started.

1.  Create a written policy.
“We’ve never done it that way before” are heard in every organization, including the church. That expression indicates that people need time to accept new ideas and methods of operation. Implementing a risk management process, which includes background checking, must start with a policy that is written and accepted by the staff and leadership of the church.

If you don’t have a written policy—write one! It should explain the rationale for doing a background check and which volunteer positions will be checked. Have the policy accepted and approved by your church governing board and incorporate it into the staff handbook—for paid and unpaid workers.

2.  Determine who to check. 
Realize that not every volunteer in your ministry requires the same scrutiny. Mrs. Jones, who updates the attendance records from her home, or the 80-year-old shut-in who helps with crafts probably don’t need their criminal backgrounds checked. But if the volunteer position involves making contact with children, youth, or others who are vulnerable, use the strictest screening procedures you can realistically implement. You may also want to consider screening cleaning staff, vendors, and contracted workers who have access to your building. 

Determine if you operate any programs that require mandatory screening. You may need to check with a local attorney as these laws vary from state to state and can change at any time. Many states require a criminal background check on staff if you operate a school, preschool, daycare program, healthcare program, professional counseling center, or program that requires a license or uses licensed professionals. Your insurance provider may also require background checks in order for you to carry standard liability coverage.

3.  Include screening requirements in ministry descriptions. 
Once you’ve established which positions require a background check, add it to the ministry description. A written ministry description in itself is a risk management tool because it can state the qualifications needed to get the job done. Clearly indicate that a criminal background check is required to serve in the position. Not only does this help manage the risk—it states your expectations upfront.

4.  Start at the top. 
When implementing a new policy at church, many leaders use the following approach:  “Do what I say, not what I do.”  This doesn’t fly when it comes to checking someone’s personal background or driving record! Instead, lead by example. Pastors should head up the line for background checks, and then the other paid staff members and volunteers in leadership positions should follow.

After your top leadership level has been checked, you can begin with the other volunteer positions you have identified as potential areas for liability. The higher-risk positions often include:  (1) those who work with children, youth, senior citizens, or the developmentally disabled; (2) counselors; (3) drivers; and (4) individuals with financial responsibilities. The risk increases when they serve regularly or without close supervision. 

5. Consider your budget. 
If you are doing a large number of background checks to get everyone on board, you may need to phase in the process to manage your budget. A background check can cost from $5 to $50 depending on the company you use and items included in the search. Search options may involve identity checking, criminal records, motor vehicle reports, education verification, and more. Determine the type of search required for the position and shop around for a company that offers what you need—at a price you can afford.  

6. Work your plan.
Marlene Wilson, author of Group’s Volunteer Leadership Series, has said, “Where risk management is concerned, talk is a great place to start, but action is required.” So, once you’ve made your plan—work your plan. Be consistent in whatever protocol you establish. Realize that change is to be expected. Technology and the law drive what is prudent and customary; new standards appear with amazing frequency. 

7.  Keep records. 
Now is the time to establish a paper trail. Document every screening effort. Typically, one question raised in court is whether your church has met due diligence in the screening process. A file on every volunteer will show this to be the case. According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a signed consent form is required in order to run a background check. Keep the consent form, background check report, and other documents in your files, and keep files secure.

As you begin the screening process, you will need to establish a recordkeeping system of who’s been checked—and the results. Many volunteer management software programs now have a place to input this information, which would include date of check and result. An Excel spreadsheet or a good paper filing system can also serve this purpose.

You will never have a 100 percent guarantee that conducting background checks will prevent all bad things from happening at your church—but it will help to reduce the risk. Make safety a priority in your church—as Paul warned the Ephesians—and reap the benefit of a secure and caring community.

Bob D’Ambrosio is a 25-year church leader veteran who is certified in Volunteer Administration. He currently serves as a Consultant for Church Volunteer Central, Training Director for LifeServe National Conference, and is an Assimilation Pastor at his church in northern Colorado.

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