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What churches need to consider when background screening volunteers, staff

Getty Images Plus/ iStock
Getty Images Plus/ iStock

Pastors and church leaders are responsible to their youngest, most vulnerable attendees whose parents entrust to children’s ministry programs. Conducting background checks on volunteers and staff who work with children is an important step in protecting them from potential predators. 

At its core, a background check is a tool for ministries to use to help identify potential red flags that could indicate future problems. Background checks also act as a deterrent for those who would take advantage of the trusting nature of the church.

Churches need to undertake every avenue available to ensure children are kept safe. This includes understanding your search options and the results obtained from the variety of screening tools available today.

If you’re evaluating a new provider or looking to start a new screening program, the following considerations should be at the top of your list when it comes to selecting the right company for your ministry.

Not all background checks (and companies) are created equal

When evaluating a new provider the first question should be, “Do they know our space?” Every industry and organization has its own unique nuances. Your screening provider should be experienced working with ministries and faith-based organizations to understand the challenges you face screening both staff and volunteers. They should also be to explain the differences in what your organization needs based on your current location.

As a rule of thumb for churches, at the very minimum, the background check should cover: 

  • Social Security number verification 
  • National criminal search 
  • Sex offender registries search 
  • Seven-year county criminal background searches or statewide repository searches. 

These are the basic building blocks of a background check and from here you can customize based on your church’s and organization’s needs.

Child safety training

In a perfect world, the Church should be the safest place for your family and children. Unfortunately, there are those in society who will take advantage of that trust. A Child Safety Training program should be considered a vital part of your screening program. This type of training helps staff and volunteers to recognize the signs of grooming and the steps to take if they suspect someone might have malicious intent.

There are several stand-alone programs available on the market that can be completed online. However, a best-practice consideration for your team is to choose a screening provider that offers both full-service background checks and a Child Safety Training program. This makes tracking who has completed the course and passed a background check more efficient, as it can all be ordered and tracked at the same time.

Consider a more in-depth screen for staff

Background checks should be run on anyone who will be working or volunteering with your ministry and who will be around children. While volunteer screening is comprehensive, you may want to take a deeper look at someone who will be joining your staff full-time. This can include running employment history verifications to see if there’s been any omitted job history that can indicate a red flag. A credit check may be a consideration for someone doing bookkeeping or handling finances for your ministry. If your organization uses buses or vans to transport members, a Motor Vehicle Record search is a good idea to run on anyone who will be driving.

By running a more in-depth background check on staff, you are taking the extra step to protect your ministry, community and those you serve.

Continuous criminal monitoring

There is a saying in the industry that a background check is only as good as the day it is completed. Most insurance companies require that churches and ministries run regular re-checks on their staff and volunteers — anywhere from every year to every three years. However, anything can happen between the initial background check and the re-screen. Continuous Criminal Monitoring is a great supplement to your standard re-screening efforts and offers a stopgap between those more thorough checks.

Each provider’s monitoring program is different and provides varying levels of coverage. If your ministry is considering monitoring, ask your provider how often names are searched, what type of information you should expect to receive if there is a “hit,” and how easy it is to enroll and unenroll someone from the program.

Accuracy and speed work together

Advancements in technology and access to online public records allow ministries to run background checks faster and easier than ever before. Depending on the complexity of your search, some reports can be returned immediately, increasing convenience for churches in their hiring processes and volunteer selections. However, an experienced provider will never sacrifice quality for speed. One of the most common causes for delays is needing more information to verify identity. Your screening provider should be able to offer a solution that takes the role of entering sensitive personal information out of your hands and allowing the applicant to complete it on their own with required fields like middle names to help verify identity. Third identifiers are beneficial when searching for common names like Jones or Smith. 

National accreditation

When looking for a screening provider for your ministry or organization, always look for a Nationally Accredited provider through the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA). This designation means the provider adheres to the highest levels of compliance and has taken extra steps to ensure the safety and security of personal identifying information.

Tom Ellis is the Executive Vice President of Ministry Brands’ Protection and Compliance Division. Tom leads Background Screening services in support of Ministry Brands' $280 Million in revenue, with complete management responsibility for a $30+ million operating budget. With over 30 years of business and IT consulting and senior management experiences, Tom’s focus is on driving profitable global growth and employee engagement to meet the needs of over 16,000 clients. 

Prior to Ministry Brands, Tom led Global Operations for First Advantage, the largest global Background Screening organization. Tom holds a master’s in business administration from Northwestern University, is active in his community and spends time working with the High School business department in his district.

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