Shawn Hendricks, BR Managing Editor
While many church leaders may be reluctant to impose background checks and detailed child protection policies on their staff and volunteers, it could save them and their congregation from terrible, even tragic, consequences in the future.
Background checks and establishing strong policies related to children’s ministries are essential, said Cheryl Markland, a childhood ministry consultant with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
When given the opportunity, Markland leads training sessions for churches looking to better protect their members who are involved in children’s ministry.
“It’s interesting how many churches don’t realize that they need something in writing,” Markland said. “And they … need to be doing background checks.”
According to the Church Law & Tax website, 3 million children in the United States have been sexually abused.
One in five boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, and one in three girls will be sexually abused before they turn that same age. Last month, a 68-year-old chaperone, who accompanied a church group to the North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell on Oak Island, was charged with more than 20 counts of sex offenses with minors.
Background checks and policies are not guaranteed to prevent abuse, but they can help provide protection. Most screenings only cost about $10 to $15 per person.
“If you’ve done your legwork, if you’ve done your due diligence, … you’re going to be covered [legally],” Markland said. “That’s not the primary reason you do it; it is part of it.”
While churches tend to focus on background checks to provide safer conditions, Markland said the screenings should be part of a thorough children’s ministry policy.
Every church, she said, needs to have a written policy that includes how to handle everyday situations that involve children – how to handle situations involving sick or injured children, allergies and picking up and dropping off children.
Policies also could include assigning monitors in hallways, making sure every room has a window in the door, and that there is visual access into all classrooms and offices.
Too often churches are apprehensive about enforcing policies or conducting background checks, Markland said.
“You’re afraid you’re going to insult somebody by asking them to do a background check,” Markland said. “[Or], there’s a sense that the church is a safe place. ‘Nothing bad is going to happen here just because it’s the church’; and yet it happens all of the time.”
Markland advises all churches to conduct across-the-board background checks on those who volunteer to work with children and all staff members. This should even include volunteers who have served the church for many years.
“Even if you serve for 25 years, you still need to be screened so that it’s a level field,” she said. “A church could grandfather certain folks but the best policy is to screen everybody.”
Churches should be particularly vigilant when it comes to Vacation Bible Schools (VBS), Markland said. “You’ll have people who volunteer for VBS [who] won’t volunteer for anything else,” she said.
“As you enlist these people to help, … you need to make sure that a background screening has been done or is up-to-date.”
“A lot of people think we just need to [screen] the people that we hire, … but your volunteers are the ones who have more direct interaction with the children and the youth.”
Congregations should also rescreen those involved with the ministry at least every three years, she said. “I wouldn’t go more than three years before I rescreened, because you don’t know [if] somebody gets charged with something else after the initial screening,” she said.
A key to creating a successful policy, however, must start with the support of church leadership.
“If your senior leadership are not on board with it, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “You have to have support from the top down for this because somebody is going to object to it. Everybody … needs to be on the same page.”
After a policy is created it needs to be followed. “If you are not enforcing the policies you have created, you … could be in more trouble than if you didn’t have a policy at all,” she said. “Once a church acknowledges that they should have a policy and they don’t put one in place, they are liable.”
For those concerned about a background check digging up something embarrassing from the past, such as a bounced check or speeding ticket, Markland said most people can relax.
“They’re not checking for … that kind of stuff,” she said. “They’re looking for information that would pertain to … involvement with children.”
Also, churches usually set the parameters for the information they receive from the background screening company. Many of the screenings simply show that a person passed or failed the test.
“If there is a domestic abuse charge … that matters,” she said. “If there’s a drug issue, that matters. But if you got caught speeding, unless you’re driving the church van, it doesn’t matter. There are people who will freak out because it’s something they did in college, but that’s not what churches are concerned with.”
Ultimately, Markland said, the little bit of expense and effort involved with providing a safer environment is well worth it.
For more information about conducting background checks for your church or ministry, contact Bobbie Theis at 515-809-2819 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the August 17th issue of the Biblical Recorder, the news journal of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, and is reprinted with permission. Shawn Hendricks worked as a staff writer, and later senior writer at the International Mission Board (IMB) in Richmond, Va., for nearly a decade before accepting a position at the Recorder in October of 2011. While at IMB, Hendricks covered Southern Baptist mission work around the globe. He traveled to more than 20 countries and led media teams on assignment.