Background Checks for Volunteers?

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Christian Reformed World Missions office staff are working with hundreds of volunteers who are serving for a week, a month, or a year in overseas settings. It is exciting to see so many people willing to spend their time and money in ministry and learning about other cultures and how God is at work in them to gather a Church for Himself. 

One of the issues we have faced recently is getting background checks for volunteers. It has become increasingly common for organizations to require those who serve, especially if they are working with vulnerable populations, to do a background check for any history of criminal activity or abuse. Some churches are requiring them for anyone working with children. These checks are seen as a way of protecting those we serve overseas as well as the organization and the Lord's reputation. We all know what damage was done when abuse issues in the Roman Catholic Church came to light. 

So, does your church or organization require background checks for volunteers? If so, what sort of volunteer service leads to such a requirement? Do you think this is a good practice, or not?

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There is nothing wrong with getting criminal background checks for volunteers.  (We have done it in our church).   But it merely skims the surface.   It is harmful to do it, if people assume they have then fulfilled their responsibility.   It misses those who have never been charged or convicted.  It misses those who may have never done anything in the past, but might in the future.  It taints those whose criminal charge or conviction has nothing to do with abuse of children.   It has no way of considering or accounting for those who have truly repented of their misdeed, and have been renewed in faith and life by Christ. 

It is something invented by Social Services (government) primarily to cover their legal butts.   We should be aware of its serious limitations. 

Very good points, John. I am well aware that there are serious issues with people who have never been convicted...Sexual abuse of children is rampant in the church--I have a good friend whose father, a pastor (not in the CRC), abused her all during her childhood. And to your other point, my former pastor was almost not allowed to cross the border to Canada when he was dying because of a prior felony (many, MANY years prior). Nobody who knew him would argue that he was "renewed in faith and life by Christ". CRWM does not automatically exclude a volunteer because something shows up on a criminal record; rather, we look at them on a case-by-case basis. 

Do you have any suggestions/ideas on how to get beyond the surface? We do ask for references, including one from the volunteer's church, but if you have any suggestions on how we could take even small steps towards a more thorough vetting of volunteers, we would love to hear your feedback. 

Conduct a good relevant interview, not only on attitudes towards children, but also on what it means to live a life of obedience to Christ.   Get two references, if the volunteer position is outside of the local church.  In world missions and world relief situations, make sure that workers do not work alone nor travel nor visit alone;  this is to protect the workers as much as children, since in some situations workers can be tempted by adults, or their reputations (and god's work) can be sullied by mere rumor and innuendo.   When I was in Mexico for two weeks, the local pastor/missionary would not visit women without his wife present, and he took me along to several visits as a substitute chaperone/elder to prevent problems.   The same type of policy should be considered for dealing with children, although sometimes a semblance of privacy of conversations may be beneficial, so a common sense solution is required. 

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We require police clearance certicates for anyone in leadership in our church. Yes, it is not full proof, but, it does send a signal, particularly to guests or newcomers, that this is a church that cares about it's vulnerable members, and takes its responsibility seriously. We also have policies about visits by elders, deacons, or youth group leaders, etc., not to drive alone with a member of the opposite sex, or visit them alone. Such visits, if unavoidable, are then to be conducted in a public place like a coffee shop or library.