By Patricia Carlson
A Virginia church is at the center of every congregation’s worst nightmare: One of its former volunteers is accused of sexually abusing several children he met through the church.
The worst part is that these newest charges come six years after similar allegations plagued the man and the church.
Once a clean record, not always a clean a record.
Unfortunately, insider threats like these can happen at any ministry — and frankly, any non-secular establishment. Preventing harmful acts (abuse, embezzlement, violent crimes and theft) is one of the main reasons many ministries conduct background checks on new employees and volunteers. Background checks are the single most effective tool at protecting the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who come through your doors every week.
But, just because an employee or volunteer passed an initial background check, doesn’t mean his or her circumstances haven’t changed in such a way that would make that individual a concern to the church.
Re-screening employees and volunteers can help
We know this is true. Even so, the latest studies show that most employers negate this critical step in keeping their workplaces safe: less than one-third of employers re-screen current employees and volunteers. Some industries — health care and transportation, for example — require additional background checks; most, however, do not.
Ministries have some of the lowest re-screening rates. As we reported in a previous Church Executive article (“The true cost of screening,” November / December 2015), tough budgets are often to blame. Legal issues, privacy concerns, and worrying about appearing untrusting of your ministry members also play a role in deciding against follow-up background checks.
3 scenarios when re-screening is absolutely the right move
There are three concrete instances when re-screening employees and volunteers is not only appropriate, but necessary.
#1: An internal move. When employees change positions (either laterally or vertically), or volunteers begin serving in new roles, they will undoubtedly have different responsibilities. In some cases, they might have greater access to sensitive information, church funds or children.
Promotions might come with benefits, such as the use of a church vehicle or a key to the building. All these new access points put your church and its people at risk if you haven’t properly re-screened the employees and / or volunteers. For example, re-screening will examine a person’s driving and criminal record and show you any new offense you might not know about.
#2: A workplace incident. It’s your responsibility to ensure your church is a safe place to work. Failing to do so could leave the church vulnerable to a negligence lawsuit.
A workplace accident is a good indicator that an employee or volunteer needs to be re-screened. You might uncover substance abuse through a drug test. You might learn of a huge financial burden that’s causing your employee or volunteer stress and anxiety.
In both instances, you’re now in a better position to counsel the individual, professionally and personally, through the word of the Lord. And, from a liability standpoint, you will have shown due diligence in keeping your workplace safe.
#3: Unusual behavior. If an employee or volunteer starts acting out or exhibiting otherwise odd personality changes, including (but not limited to) tardiness, rudeness and uncleanliness, it’s time for a follow-up background check.
Many secular employers already abide by a policy that mandates a random drug test in the event of unusual behavior. Ministries might want to strongly consider beefing up this policy to include a full re-screen; while personality changes can indicate substance abuse, they can also mean something else is going on — a mental health issue, divorce, a child’s illness, and so on.
This is a time to be cautious, to ensure your congregation isn’t affected by the issue. But, it’s also an important step to take to prevent an outside problem from becoming an insider threat.
The most effective way to incorporate re-screening into your employment / volunteer guidelines is to make it a mandatory requirement. A study done in 2012 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute showed the average length of employment for Americans is more than five years.
Our “best practice” recommendation is every year, and “industry standard” for churches is every two to three years. By screening every year or two, you’re also ensuring your church is holding new hires and veterans to the same standards.
Back to the case of the Virginia church: If the former volunteer had been re-screened within that recommended five-year timeframe, ministry leaders might have been better equipped to handle the initial allegations of child sexual abuse — and, most important, prevent him from hurting more of the church’s children in the future.
Patricia Carlson is a Florida-based freelance writer for Protect My Ministry in Tampa, FL.