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Editor's Note:

When this question was first asked back in the 2000's, "background checks for church volunteers" were just then becoming possible. Now there are many companies, online resources and databases, and local law enforcement agencies that can help perform what has is now rightly considered "standard practice."

While background checks have become a standard practice in many churches and denominations --one that is often driven by insurance company policy, that is not the case in all churches. Some are cavalier about it or inconsistent, or they are embarrassed to ask their church staff to submit to a background check. In fact, staff should be the FIRST to lead on this issue! 

As the headlines often unfortunately remind us, being diligent about background checks for ALL staff and volunteers who will come into direct contact with children -- is an essential part of today's stewardship.

But background checks are not the only requirement for safety today. Each church should have in place both policies and actual practices that make the church a safe place for children, youth, and adults, and help identify young people at risk.

Safe Church practices include but are not limited to:

  • Background checks.
  • Surveying of the property, facility, and rooms for potential problems (including hiding places and visibility issues).
  • Modifying doors and door-closing policies to create a more open environment.
  • Policies for discipline, number of teachers per students, etc.
  • Intruder alert and response.
  • Understanding every volunteer's role in providing eyes and ears, and spotting troublesome behavior both in church or potentially happening at home/school.
  • Church locks, keys, closing policy.
  • Transportation policies, including safe-driver checks.
  • Gun-policies.
  • Reporting and privacy policies.
  • Recognizing and responsing to medical and mental health emergencies.
  • Training (check with your insurance company and local law enforcement).

For more resources, consult with your church insurance company rep and visit your denomination's online resources.  You can also find a plethora of safety policies and discussions online by googling "church safety policy" and the like.

Original Post
My church has a policy for the entire church that deals with physical/emotional/sexual abuse.
We have a screening form that is filled out by volunteers and also by paid staff. The form gives us the right to do background checks but we do not necessarily do a check on every person.
One of the advantages of WoRM is that children will never be left alone with any one leader; there should always be at least one shepherd and one workshop leader at all times. This is a very good rule for all programs, not just WoRm.
The background checks do take time and they do take money. If your church has not budgeted for this then that obviously must be addressed. Do you do the background checks through local law enforcement? As I am sure you know, doing a criminal background check is very different from checking references listed on a form or application.
Does your church policy regarding this state who should in fact be handling reference checks and background checks?
I would hope that the leadership would be supportive and willing to step up to help get this done, and to make sure that the funds are budgeted to have it done properly.
If you have a very large congregation with lots of "new" folks in each rotation, I think you really need to do checks. It will require a lot of planning ahead and working to get your volunteers lined up for each rotation several months in advance, but it would definitely make it easier to get the "paperwork" done. Again, if the leadership, both clergy and lay, are committed to making this a priority, it will make your job much easier.
Good luck
Jan Snell

We have to do them too - for everyone involved directly or indirectly with children and teens.

It is can be costly, but we have discovered (at least in Canada) that the cost varies from one municipality to the next, sometimes by as much as 60%. "Shop around", you might save tones of $$$


Does having to complete the background check paperwork (or the actual background check) have any negative impact on recruiting volunteers? We are in the very begnning stages of WoRM, and next fall the Church will be instituting a policy that includes a background check for anyone working with the youth. I agree with the new policy, but was wondering how the policy may affect my recruitment.
This year our church also required background checks for anyone that is in anyway envolved with the youth. Because of the expense, we brought it to our church council and the church payed for it. As far as negitive effects, if someone isn't willing to have a background check do you really want that person being involved with the children of your congregation??
I have found that at least when I am recruiting parents that there is no hesitation or surprise when it comes to background checks. In my area, any one who wants to volunteer with Scouts, soccer, T-ball or any other activity involving supervision of children know that a background check is standard practice.
The key is education and communication with your congregation. You want to communicate "cutting edge", high standards, going the extra mile, etc. I found that emphasizing that there is NOT a problem but that the policy/new procedure is meant to be proactive was helpful.
The other piece is to help people understand that this is also a way to take care of volunteers as well as children.
Communicate pride in the new policy,not apology.
Jan Snell
I don't mean to be unforgiving, but I really don't know if a person with a "minor offense" (involving the issue on this board) should be allowed to work with children/youth. A church simply can't allow someone with a questionable background to have responsibility of working with children.

If another problem occurs, not only is the offender liable, but also the church for allowing the person to be in such a position after knowing about the past "minor offense."

Many decisions we make have long lasting after-effects. For the offender, this is one of those decisions that has far reaching consequences. While the zero tolerance might seem harsh, our children’s safety and emotional health must be placed ahead of the past offender’s desires.

HOWEVER, if you're talking about a "minor offense" as something like a traffic violation.....we might not have any teachers, ministers, or ushers if we count that one.
We require volunteers with children & youth to attend a training event on Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, a criminal record background check, a child abuse clearance, a signed covenant to abide by the Prevention of Abuse Policies of the Church and we require two-adults in every room at all times -- sounds tough, huh?? It is promoted as a high standard for the safety of the children as well as the volunteers -- a necessary, preventative measure and in no way an accusation of current volunteers.

If there should be a "minor offense" involving children on a person's record-- no go! Can't work with children or youth now or ever. If the "minor offense" is of another nature not involving children, it would be taken on a case by case basis and the situation would be brought to the Commission on Education for a decision.

I have not experienced a problem with recruiting because of this -- as a matter of fact it adds a more professional and serious bent to the business of Christian Education -- which was/is sorely needed! I have also not experienced anyone being angry or offended by the request (at least not to my face big grin )

The children in all of our programs -- as well as the volunteers -- MUST be protected from the realities that we live with. Period! Then we can get down to business of helping them grow in their faith and service to others!
Our church and denomination require the criminal background checks... they must be redone every two years. If there is ANY offense against children, we can't use the individual. We've had a few people hesitant to fill them out, but they've ben reassured that it's confidential... only the children's pastor sees them and they are kept locked up.

Contact your local police or sheriff's department. They run the checks for us for free because we are a church. It can't hurt to ask!

Cherry Picking Safety in the Church 

Growing up in the church and being a youth leader off-and-on for nearly 40 years, I have witnessed first-hand how times have changed with regard to "church safety." And I'm glad times have changed. I'm a firm believer in "trust but verify." 

But we also need some consistency on the issue of church safety. It is unacceptable to have background checks, training to spot or prevent abuse, but continue to have unsafe facilities, for example. Telling teachers they can't hug their students isn't the answer either.

I grew up in a church where adults hugged kids and kids hugged adults, and for the first 30 years of my ministry didn't think much about it. Then in my last church position, they approved an official policy that we were not allowed to hug any children, ...something which I have to admit, I ignored regularly when a kid came running my way. Though I did adjust my sensibility about it -- making sure it was in the presence of others and appropriate to the situation and child, a blanket "no hugging" policy is an example of church safety gone wild. There are many policies, however, that I now strictly adhere to. 30 years ago we didn't think twice about counseling someone behind closed doors, now we make sure another adult is nearby. This is wise for everyone concerned.

You can read a lot about church safety and policies, but my main point here in this post is about making sure we aren't just "cherry picking" issues of safety.

Examples of "Cherry Picking" the Issue of Church Safety

In my last church, I had to argue with several people about why we shouldn't put an unfenced playground near an unfenced pond, and yet the church had a policy that the blinds in our Sunday School doors had to always be open.

In that same church, the Facility Committee managed a building with a large number of unlocked and unused rooms, but didn't want to spend the money on changing the keying system. Yet this same committee was worried that a painted sheet of cardboard in a hallway display needed to be sprayed with "fire-proof" spray. (A $10 bottle of spray took care of their fire fear, which is to say, they were willing to do safety on the cheap.)

In a previous church, the church Session unanimously approved the installation of a camera and bell system on the front door because the secretary was often alone in the afternoon (and people would come in off the street looking for help), ...but the pastor was against it. Yet this same pastor placed several laminated signs around the church declaring the building a "gun free zone."

In another church, a committee chair announced that the "ordained" staff didn't need to be background checked, Fortunately, the ordained staff disagreed and took the lead on getting checked.

Committees will ask parents to sign permission slips, but then let any parent help drive the kids regardless of the parent's driving background.

Churches will fuss about kid's peanut allergies, but won't pay for an EPI pen to be on the premises or have a defibrillator for their older members.

I've also had encounters with mentally ill church members that left me feeling emotionally unsafe. One was verbally abusive, -- yet others in the church protected her bad behavior (in part, because the offender was a big giver, and because they didn't want to become her next target). Where's the policy on that?

Yes, everyone who will work directly with children and youth should be background checked, but let's agree that's only the beginning of "church safety."

Your thoughts welcome!

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