A Guide to Conducting Background Checks on Your
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 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 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
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 background checks.
Seeing the Need
Performing 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
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
To implement proper risk management, background checks should be
included within a total package of screening tools. According to
the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, a basic screening process for
every volunteer should include an application, interview, and
reference check. For those volunteer positions that work with
vulnerable people (children, youth, or the elderly), additional
screening, such as a background check, is a necessary step in the
- Perform a national check. Currently (as of January, 2005), 41
states can be searched for criminal activity, and 38 states for
their sexual offenders registries, through electronic reporting
online. If you just check an applicant for criminal activity in
your home state, you may not be viewed by the courts as having
preformed your “due diligence.” A Social Security verification
should also be included in your background search to make sure
applicants are who they say they are. You have an obligation to
take preventative steps that may sidestep a tragedy, and with our
transient society, a national search is a must.
- Determine whom to check. Realize that not every volunteer in
your children’s 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 those craft cutouts, 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
- The higher-risk positions often include those who work with
children, youth, senior citizens, or the developmentally disabled;
counselors; drivers; and individuals with financial
responsibilities. The risk increases when they serve frequently or
without close supervision. It’s a good idea to review questions you
may have about screening with your church’s insurance agent.
- Identify mandatory screening positions. 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 some form of
a criminal background check if you operate a school, preschool, day
care program, health care program, professional counseling center,
or program that requires a license or uses licensed professionals.
Your insurance provider may also require background checks for you
to carry standard liability coverage.
- Add the screening requirement to 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 state that a
criminal background check is required to serve in the position. Not
only does this help manage the risk — it contributes to changing
your culture by stating your expectations up front.
- Start at the top. When implementing a new policy at church,
many leaders use the approach of “Do what I say, not what I do.”
This will never fly when it comes to checking someone’s personal
background or driving record! Instead, lead by example. Your senior
pastor should be the first in line for a background check, the
other paid staff members should follow, and then the volunteers in
- Consider your budget. If you’re 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 national background check
can cost from $25 to $75 depending on the company you use. Church
Volunteer Central, an association to help churches through
volunteer effectiveness, offers discounted national background
checks with Kroll Background America for $17 each. So it’s wise to
shop around for a company that’s offering what you need — at a
price you can afford.
- Keep records. As you begin this process you’ll also need to
establish a record-keeping system of who’s been checked — and who
hasn’t. Many volunteer management software programs now have a
place to input this information, which would include “Date of
Check” and “Result.” A Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or a good paper
filing system can also serve this purpose.
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 to run a background check. Keep the
consent form, background check report, and other documents in your
files — and keep files secure.
Put safety first in your children’s ministry, as Paul warned the
Ephesians, and reap the benefit of a secure and caring
Check It Out
Confused about selecting a background-check company? Look for
these important items as you compare companies.
- Coverage — Reporting practices vary for each state and county,
with no guarantee that all felony and misdemeanor convictions are
reported from each law enforcement agency. Therefore, look for a
firm that offers a national report, including as many registries as
possible, rather than just searching within your state or
- Reliability — Many background-checking companies offer online
Internet-based services. Sounds fast and convenient, until you find
that their server is down. Timeliness and accuracy are issues
you’ll want to investigate. Do they offer multiple security
features such as password protection, encryption, and SSL (Secure
Sockets Layer)? Do they provide backup generator power, duplicate
servers, tape and hot-data backups, and multiple operation centers
to prevent disruption? Ask about their accuracy rate in the
reporting and the correction rate on reinvestigations. You want
reliable service you can trust.
- Service and Support — A background-check company needs to do
more than just provide a report — they need to provide support
services to assist you in the process. Will you have access to a
“live person” to talk with in case you have questions? Do they have
a legal department that’ll provide counsel and guidelines to meet
the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act? Many companies
also provide online archives of all your reports so you can go back
and retrieve information to keep a record of your files. Buying the
cheapest product won’t do you any good if you don’t have the
support services that help you with the information.
- Convenience — Many background-checking programs offer online
screening, which saves time and paperwork. The report is run by the
person’s Social Security number, rather than fingerprinting, which
is another convenience factor. The report needs to include a Social
Security number verification to validate the person’s identity.
Don’t be fooled by so-called instant reports — they often pull
from an outdated report. Every state and county has its own
reporting frequency, so the database should be updated continuously
to give current information. An electronic report can reasonably be
updated and delivered within a 24- to 48-hour turnaround.
Bob D’Ambrosio is a consultant for Church Volunteer Central. Please keep in mind
that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to