Written by YouthMinistry.com:
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.
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 students 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 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.
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 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.
The Church of the Nazarene has partnered with Ministry Safe to create Nazarene Safe, a Sexual Abuse Awareness Training designed to address the problem of sexual abuse in ministry, the basic characteristics of a sexual abuser, the grooming process by which an abuser prepares a child for abuse, and key risk indicators of child sexual abuse.
Local Nazarene churches are encouraged to contact their district’s office to receive further guidance in implementing background checks and Nazarene Safe training.