Common Mistakes Pastors Make About Employee/volunteer Screening

A pastor in San Diego County told me recently that they were using one of these brand name “Instant Nationwide” background check services that was, in fact, recommended by their popular church liability insurance carrier. When I showed the pastor on the service’s own website that they search nothing in San Diego County he was naturally upset and alarmed. He said that they had been using the service for years to screen their employees and volunteers. I asked if he ever got a criminal record on anyone and he said that he didn’t think so. Well, no wonder. The service that he paid for searched no records in San Diego County, ever.

Now think about that. How was he supposed to know? His insurance carrier recommends a company and he wants to do the right thing to protect his flock. With all of the negative publicity generated by the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, pastors of all persuasions have had to become adept in a whole new subject, that of background checks.

Although I have been in this business for 14 years and worked with such varied clients as the GE Power Systems, the LA Times, the United Nations, the Department of Defense, McDonnell Douglas/Boeing, Mars, Inc., TATA and the National Transportation Safety Board for about a year and a half now, I have been doing background checks for Calvary Chapel affiliated ministries. During that time I have had many discussions with many pastors and lay leaders all over the country about what they should do and how to proceed with screening their employees and volunteers. Based on those talks I have compiled this list of the most common mistakes that pastors make with regard to this whole subject.

Mistake #1: Using a cheapie database search. Those Instant Nationwide criminal records checks that you see advertised on the internet and sold for anywhere from $9.95 to $49.95 are not what they say they are. Everybody assumes that they are getting what the name implies; a check of all records nationwide. NOT SO. These are $1 database searches that in most cases are records from the department of corrections in each state, so the info is of felony convictions only. Even worse, in many areas of the country such as most of California, all of Nevada and Louisiana, and Montana and Maryland and Hawaii and Wyoming and Washington D.C. you get nothing at all. You may say, “I am not in any of those areas listed, so it’s OK if I use a database, right?” Wrong. You don’t know where your people are from. They could have lived most of their lives in one of those areas and just moved to your area recently. For more on this subject read my Article: Background Check Buyer Beware at: http://www.bcint.com/background_check_buyer_beware.htm

Mistake #2: Assuming that you know the people you hire. We all make this mistake. I’ve done it myself and I do background checks for a living. How crazy is that? One problem pastors have with this is that they are kind of embarrassed to have someone they know submit to a background check, especially at a small church. This is one reason why we suggest that the pastor be the first to submit to a background check. If you lead they will follow. For people who have difficulty with this one we suggest that they make it pro forma; that is, that everybody has to go through this process no matter who they are (including you).

Mistake #3: Procrastination and not acting at all. I know that as a pastor many, many things are vying for your attention and this is just one more thing you have to worry about. I also know that the cost of doing the background checks is one factor that may slow the process. If this is an issue for you please contact us. We will find a way to make it affordable for you.

One humorous thing that we have found is that there is no perfect sized church. Pastors tell me all the time that they are small and therefore can’t afford much OR that they are a large growing church therefore it will cost too much to screen all of their staff and volunteers.

As I asked my pastor, when we were putting this program together, “How much would it cost you to defend yourself against a frivolous child molestation lawsuit?” He said, “That’s easy, $100,000 just to prove that nothing happened.” Background checks are cheap insurance against that.

Mistake #4: Assuming someone else checked at a previous ministry. Just recently we did a criminal history check on an assistant pastor who had just graduated from bible college. While at the college he had two felony arrests for spouse abuse and child abuse and a restraining order to keep away from his family. It just goes to show; you never know.

Another interesting thing about background checks is that everybody believes that everybody else should be checked out, but not they themselves. No one thinks they or their friends should be subject to scrutiny.

Mistake #5: One of our members is a cop who checks everybody out for us. The problem with this is that everybody assumes everything. If I were a betting man I would bet that if you fall into this category that you don’t know what is being checked. You just assume that everything is. You would not believe how many people I talk to on an almost daily basis that think that there is somehow some magic government databases that have all of your personal data at the touch of a keyboard. Again, not so.

Find out just what exactly is being checked. Are they checking just your county or your whole state? What if your subject just moved there from another state? How complete is the information? Does it list all misdemeanor and felony arrests and convictions? How up to date is the information? Are they checking maiden or other names? Are you getting a written report to keep in a file and not just a verbal OK? Oh and by the way, if your peace officer friend is checking NCIC (the FBI database) he/she is almost certainly doing it illegally.

One way to choose a company that you can trust to do your employee and volunteer screening is to find one that will answer all of your questions. The internet is full of companies that will not disclose the source of the information that they sell to you. Ask if the information is directly from the courts or from an outside database. Ask how recent is the information and how far back the information is available. Ask if it is searched in person, if necessary and if there is an extra charge for that service. If a company can’t answer those questions to your satisfaction, find another company.