Churches and all places of worship are expected to demonstrate integrity and accountability. Thus, headlines regarding misconduct, sexual abuse, cover-up, or fraud may severely damage the church’s reputation and future actions. How can a church protect against these situations and ensure they are complying with legal and insurance requirements? It starts with identifying and assessing the risks. Only with an understanding of the risks can the church create a cost-effective plan to mitigate the risks and protect their reputation.
Risks can be grouped into three main areas: people, money, and transportation. These are the three areas where background checks are the most useful. Prior to performing the background check, it is important to provide the applicant with a disclosure and authorization form to sign. The signed disclosure form and the background information should be kept in with the employee file in a secured fashion. Consider looking into your church management software for tools to assist with tracking this data, paperless solutions, and keeping the information secure. The software can track when the employee or volunteer information needs the initial check or the periodic update.
Protecting children, the elderly, or other vulnerable populations is critical. Accordingly, any employees or volunteers working with these groups should be subject to a comprehensive screening that includes criminal and sex offender background checks at both the national and local level. Since the screening may not identify all the risks or provide the full context of an item, it is advisable to include questions in the background check disclosure and authorization form that permit the applicant to offer explanations or for the employer to follow up on an item.
A national and local credit check and criminal screening should be conducted for all employees or volunteers handling money. This is part of being good stewards of the finances and maintaining financial accountability. In addition, consider bonding for this group of employees and volunteers if the risk is high or there is a lot of cash handling.
Minimizing the risks related to transportation for church events includes completing driving background checks along with the national and local criminal screening of the driver. In addition, be sure to check with your insurance company regarding adequate coverage for using vehicles not owned by the church.
Verification of employment and education along with contacting personal or professional references are also important safeguards. These sources are especially useful for youth or people from other countries who do not have information available through standard background checks. Another effective safeguard is conducting personal interviews to corroborate the information gained in the previous steps and build a relationship. After the applicant is approved, personal interviews are helpful to stay current with any life events that may affect risks.
Churches may be hesitant to institute background checks as they can be costly and construed by employees and volunteers as a lack of trust. Generally, the benefits far outweigh the cost of the background checks and other safeguards. Communicating expectations through up-to-date policies and training is essential, as the matter is no longer perceived as a personal issue, but rather known to be an organizational practice. Leadership can waylay any perceptions of mistrust by clearly communicating that the rationale for the policy aligns with the church’s commitment to protecting both the volunteers and those they are serving.