Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Background checks

As I work with the 77 churches that make up my area of ministry responsibility one of my important tasks is to help these churches find new pastoral leadership when the need arises.  We do not assign pastors to churches, but our denomination does offer a process our churches can follow when they seek new pastors.  Of course, as Baptists they are free to follow that process or not and to use our services or not use them.  Most take advantage of the resources we provide.

In recent years part of the process I've recommended to the churches I've assisted is to conduct a background check on pastoral candidates before presenting them to the congregation.  It's sad that we live in a time when that is necessary, but we do.  Pastors are people, and people can make some poor choices in their lives.  Some of those choices may prevent them from serving in a leadership capacity in a church.  Some of the pastors who fail recognize their sins and are deeply remorseful.  These often recognize they have forfeited their right to provide leadership to another church because of their actions.  Unfortunately, others simply move on to another church that is seeking new leadership.  Some of these are sexual predators looking for fresh victims.  Others are con men seeking gullible people who will trust them while they steal from the church or use people for their own selfish needs.  Every year pastors from various denominations have their ministerial credentials revoked or suspended due to unethical or sinful behavior, but the average church search committee is not likely to know about the action taken by a denomination.  Anyone can create a resume to send to a pastor search committee that is not going to include such revocation of their credentials, and if a church does call them to be their pastor, by the time they may find out about the past activities of the individuals it's too late.

I encourage every committee to call the references that are on a candidate's resume, and to ask the people they call if there are others they would suggest should be called.  A committee is not limited to only calling the people listed in the resume, and a diligent committee should want to find out as much as possible about the candidate's character and past record as a pastor.  Call the denominational leader from where this person has last served.  A couple of years ago I was contacted by an individual who was interested in pastoring one of our churches, but he came out of a different denomination.  Before sending his resume to the church I called the judicatory leader of that denomination and was assured this was a very good pastor and one I would enjoy serving one of our churches.  The church did call that individual, and his ministry there has been a positive one, but without the assurance from someone I could trust I would have never suggested the church contact this individual.

After getting as much information through reference calls it's then time to conduct a background check.  You will need the candidate's permission to do this, and if he or she is reluctant to grant permission or gets angry that you even asked, it's a huge red flag.  Personally, I would end all interest in that candidate at that time.  With the candidate's permission you can then do your background check.  Along with doing checks through law enforcement I also suggest that a credit check be conducted.  Only when the candidate passes both of those checks should the committee present him or her as a candidate to the church.

Background checks should not be limited to calling new pastors or staff people.  They should be required of all volunteers as well and especially of anyone who works with youth and children.  This one will be much more difficult to enact because long-term volunteers in the church sometimes balk at such checks. You'll hear things like, "You've known me for 30 years and you're telling me I need a background check before I can teach my Sunday school class!"  The answer is "Yes, because we want people in the church, and especially new people who may be considering becoming a part of this church, to know that this is a safe place for their families.  We're requiring this of everyone who works with young people in any capacity because, although we've known you for 30 years, we haven't known other workers for that long.  Your pastor, staff, and deacons (or elders) will undergo the same background check we will do on you."  Such an answer might satisfy them, but if the church decides to require background checks it should be done for everyone regardless of how long they are have served in the church.

Again, it's a shame that such checks need to be done, but they are crucial in these times.  We want people to know they are safe when they come to our church or the activities we sponsor.  No church wants to be in the headlines because of some inappropriate action by a church leader.  Background checks are not expensive, and they are a small investment to make to help make your church a safe place for everyone.

No comments: