Protecting children in the church: background check myths

Debunking the 4 most dangerous misconceptions

By Patricia Carlson

PROTECTING CHILDREN IN CHURCH ICONBackground screening employees and volunteers is the most effective tool for keeping congregations safe. Yet, most ministries make major mistakes when implementing background check procedures.

It’s not churches’ fault — background checks are inherently confusing, for numerous reasons:

  • The scope of information you are trying to access
  • The numerous places where you can look for this information
  • The various laws governing how that information can be obtained, and how it can be used.

It helps to be aware of the most common myths about background screening, plus some practical solutions every ministry can incorporate to avoid making the same mistakes.

Myth #1: “All background checks are the same”

There are several ways to conduct background checks and hundreds (if not thousands) of screening firms. They — like the quality of the background checks they perform — are not created equally.

A check can include a number of things, from criminal reports and credit history, to reference and credential checks. Not every company offers comprehensive checks.

The two most common types are those performed by a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA) or a fingerprint check through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

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An FBI fingerprint check confirms personal data, such as your birth date, name(s), address(es), employment and criminal conviction history. However, it doesn’t paint a comprehensive picture and can include incomplete or inaccurate information.

A background check performed by a CRA that is accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners will provide you the most comprehensive portfolio on your employees and volunteers. Most CRAs rely on real researchers who actively work to track down and verify information. (An FBI check just aggregates computer data that might or might not be accurate.)

Finally, the screening industry is heavily regulated by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and has plenty of consumer protection built-in. The FBI does not.

Myth #2: “All the information we need is online”

A recent study performed by shows that 51 percent of employers who research job candidates on social media have found content that led them not to hire the candidate. For ministries, this behavior is 100-percent risky.

While you can find a treasure trove of information about a potential volunteer or employee online (from birth date, to address, to employment history), you also put yourself and your church at risk. Most social media profiles include information that could be considered discriminatory if used in a hiring decision — even if it’s not your primary source of collecting information.

A smart move is to create a written, standardized hiring policy that includes both a background check performed by a CRA and an internal protocol for browsing social media sites, pre-hire.

Myth #3: “Cheaper and faster = better”

Being good stewards of church funds is always a chief priority. This might tempt you to accept the lowest bid from the screening firm which promises you “instant results” every time. But, the old adage is true: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no single database of criminal information available, and “instant checks” are not always possible. Given the nature of background checks and regulations regarding collection of a person’s private information, reliable background check providers will return results in two to three days should there be any  potential hits on the applicant’s record.

Prices for background checks vary. You might find background checks provided for as little as $5 or as much as $100. Don’t decide on price alone; consult with various NAPBS-accredited providers who will listen to your needs and develop a screening plan that meets your church’s expectations and budget.

Myth #4: “The local police department conducts our background checks”

Police departments have a wealth of information at their disposal, but they can’t match the depth of data you need to vet a volunteer or candidate.
The truth is, most police checks search only the state in which your church is located and don’t include criminal information outside your state. As such, surrounding towns, states and sex offender registries will not be included.

Additionally, most police departments only store arrest records, and these are not an accurate representation of one’s criminal record; charges or convictions might not be included.

If a police officer from your congregation offers to screen your candidates for free — through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) used in FBI fingerprint checks — politely decline. This could lead to potential legal problems where both of you could end up in court.

Understanding the importance of background screening is vital. And, performing checks on your employees and volunteers is critical to keep your congregation and outreach ministries safe.

Patricia Carlson is a Florida-based freelance writer for Protect My Ministry in Tampa, FL. 


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