Background Checks: What Screening Services Does Your Church Use?

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Here at the Office of Safe Church Ministry, we receive a variety of questions concerning background screening practices. To be honest though, we aren't the ones actually doing many background screenings! I have done some digging into a variety of companies offering background check services, however, I am still having a tough time finding out which one is best. So, I'd love to hear from you!

  • What background screening service do you, or your church, use? 
  • Are you satisfied?
  • Do you recommend their screening services? 

Just as an FYI, here is a quick quote concerning background checks from our soon to be released toolkit to help churches develop and revise their policies:

Screening Leaders and Volunteers:

What criteria will be followed to screen and select volunteers and staff? Who obtains and reviews the application/screening materials? Who approves the applications? After the screening process is completed, how are screening materials stored?

One important component of abuse prevention is holding ministry leaders to high standards. Appropriate screening for staff, elders, deacons, ministry leaders, and volunteers is essential. Along with an application, an interview, and reference checks, a criminal background check should be part of the screening process, especially for those who work with children, youth, and vulnerable populations. Properly screening your leaders will require some effort, time, and money; but if you’ve ever dealt with the horrific impacts of abuse, you will understand that these efforts are worthwhile.

Each congregation must weigh the risks, benefits, and costs in determining which positions require interviews, reference checks and background checks. These resources from Brotherhood Mutual Insurance on Who to Screen, may be helpful.

Once all the screening procedures are outlined, decide how you will keep records of the screening materials. Also, decide how often staff and volunteers will need to go through the screening process. Make sure to re-screen your staff and volunteers every few years to ensure the safety of the congregation. Some limited background screening services are free for nonprofits, for example, the Michigan State Police offers ICHAT: a state-wide internet criminal history access tool. However, a state background check has limits and should be used in conjunction with a national background check at least semi-annually.

The following organizations have been successfully used by CRC congregations and ministries to help secure background checks:

  • Protect My Ministry – Protect My Ministry is committed to helping faith-based organizations maintain a safe environment, so they can focus on fulfilling their mission. Protect My Ministry offers a process, products, and solutions that work for churches. A discount is available for CRC congregations through Protect My Ministry when you use this link.
  • Plan to Protect – At Plan to Protect, our priority is abuse prevention and vulnerable sector protection.  Plan to Protect equips your team with effective and customized policies, procedures, and training.
  • ScreeningONE – Screening One offers a comprehensive suite of screening solutions.
  • myBackCheck – My Back Check provides Canadians the opportunity to obtain background checks online and share them wherever they work or volunteer.
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Participant

LaGrave CRC uses:

Central Registry: When there is evidence that an individual has abused or neglected a child, and the future risk to the child is high or intensive, that individual's name is placed on the Central Registry.

ICHAT: An online search restricted to convictions recorded in the state of Michigan, and reported to Michigan State Police. Suppressed records and warrant information are not available through ICHAT. Also, not included are federal records, tribal records, and criminal history from other states. This service is free for non-profit entities, but a government Agency Code is required to perform the checks at no charge. 

Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry: This online registry is made available with the intent to better assist the public in preventing and protecting against the commission of future criminal sexual acts by convicted sex offenders. The offense hyperlink available on the offender details webpage reflects the current statute, and due to continuous legislative changes, may not be indicative of the statute at the time the offender was convicted. This service is free for non-profit entities.

NOTE: These are for those in the State of Michigan only. Other state and Canadian provinces may have similar resources.

Safe Haven Ministries recommends HireRight, a global agency for a very broad reach.

Guide

Thanks Jane!

"Along with an application, an interview, and reference checks, a criminal background check should be part of the screening process, especially for those who work with children, youth, and vulnerable populations."

Nope, not necessarily.  Your use of the word "should" here is inappropriate.  You don't know our people.  We do.  You are not in a position to tell us what we "should" be doing to vet the various members of the church for roles of service.  This is not a helpful approach. 

Guide

If my position grants me no influence from your perspective, that is ok. However, your insurance company may require it. Many CRC churches are covered by Brotherhood Mutual. Here are their recommendations: https://www.brotherhoodmutual.com/resources/background-screening/who-to-screen/ (fyi, this link was supposed to show up earlier, but it didn't, I just updated it). 

It may even be a requirement soon, see this article: What Churches Should Know About New Child Abuse Protection Requirements by Church Law and Tax a division of Christianity Today. And while I hate to even say this... many thought they new a doctor of Olympic gymnasts too. Unfortunately, we all are fallen, some in ways that truly hurt people through the horrific form of sexual abuse - and those that are victimized are not just hurt temporarily, it lasts a lifetime, and its prevalent - check the stats

 

 

I'm not ignorant of broad stats, but also realize that people aren't statistics. 

I didn't say that your position grants you no influence, I merely stated that you are not well positioned to tell every church what they *should* be doing in regards to their people serving in the church. 

Should: used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness

To say that you know what churches *should* be doing in this regard is to say that those churches who are not are not living up their obligation, their duty, and are doing things incorrectly.  Simply put, you can't make that judgment.

Put another way, Eric, your language assumes *authority*, not *influence*.  Should is generally understood as authoritative language, the language of imperative.   That is authority that you do not have over the local church council. 

I hesitate to argue over semantics but I see Eric Kas' use of "should" (as opposed to "must") as a well-meant encouragement by a person who takes his profession seriously.  Our church does criminal background checks on all adult-aged volunteer and staff applicants.  Yes, many are known well enough to make a criminal background check seem redundant.  That being said, in order to remain objective and fair, everyone is run through the criminal background system; not only those I've known most of their lives but also those transferring in from other cities, states and even countries who I know very little about.    

Hi Eric,

As an abuse survivor, I am curious as to the push back on background checks.  I would like to better understand, and maybe I'm reading something into this that isn't there. Would you be willing to expand on your thoughts on this topic?

Thanks Frank

Hi Frank,

Thanks for asking.  I’m glad to give further insight into my thoughts on the matter.  As you begin by revealing part of your story (abuse survivor), allow me to begin by saying that my prayer for you is that God has granted and will continue to grant you healing and peace - the kind which the world cannot offer.  Only our Savior, who knew abuse and suffering like no other, can ultimately offer the healing balm that lasts and makes whole the wounded soul. 

I should begin by noting that my comments here have not been primarily a pushback on background checks, per se.  You’ll see that my initial and follow-up pushback was aimed mainly at the paternalistic tendency of the Safe Church office, which is a subset of the larger paternalistic tendency among CRC agencies and staff.  As I noted to Eric, he is really in no position to tell my local church council what they should or should not do in regards to the pastoral care of their congregation, yet he has assumed the role of doing so.  He has neither the intimate knowledge nor the authority to coherently do so, and his denominational employment does not make him automatically qualified.  As office bearers in the church, we answer to the head of the church, Jesus Christ, for our care of the congregation, not to Grand Rapids.  And you’ll notice that criminal background checks are conspicuously absent from 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  If Eric had simply offered resources or thoughts on criminal background checks, you would have read no response from me, but he went further.  And that additional distance he went is in keeping with a larger pattern that I think is worth pushing back against, for the health and unity of the church. 

Secondly, it is worth noting that Eric deftly illustrates another besetting flaw of many agency staff in his response, that of patronization.  The first reaction of many agency staff when challenged is to position themselves as the teacher, with whomever their respondent is being the student in need of education.  So, Eric goes immediately to the de facto response of so many agency staff: point to some inane statistic or study, as if that settles the matter.  As I noted to Eric: people aren’t statistics, and proper pastoral care is not beholden to any set of numbers.  To make the matter personal, the question of whether or not my 16 year old daughter should be subjected to an application, interview, reference checks, and a criminal background check before serving in the church nursery is not a question to be answered by any statistic, nor entrusted to denominational staff.  That is a question to be answered by my church council, the members of which have also not undergone a criminal background check, yet have been entrusted with the spiritual care of the church. 

As to criminal background checks in and of themselves, they are simply a tool, which like all tools can be wielded for good or for ill.  Also like all tools, there is a time to avail oneself of the use of a criminal background check, and a time to refrain.  Such judgments require wisdom and discretion, the likes of which can only be properly exercised in close relationship with people.  That is a closeness that agencies don’t possess, yet elders must possess.  When Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:16 to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”, he does not say how that will look in any or all situations.  Sometimes the shrewdness demanded in that command will result in use of such a tool, sometimes not.  Therein lies the problem in receiving moral or practical absolutes from detached agency staff.  I have no doubt as to the pure and honorable intentions of Eric Kas, but that does not mean that he or his agency are always going to make decisions or pronouncements that are healthy for the church. 

Thanks again for interacting.  God bless you. 

Eric

Participant

Mr. Van Dyken: I have been surprised by your comments about Eric’s posting as they are so different from my takeaway. As Bonnie Nicholas points out in her post below, I, too, viewed Eric’s post as one requesting resources, and encouraging churches to take advantage of resources, not, as I understand your impression, to be one of telling churches what they “should” do. 

I hope your heart is willing to hear my thoughts; they are offered humbly and in a spirit of shalom.

This first piece is really an aside, and not directly connected to the ongoing discussion, but, no doubt, still important. Addressing your first paragraph, please be aware that offers of prayers such as yours must be made carefully. Mr. Van Ryk, as an abuse survivor, expresses thanks for your comments, but there are survivors and victims who may be hurt by such words. I do not know if you have ever been personally affected by abuse or had a close relationship to one who has abused. But for those who have been, it is important for caregivers to be sensitive to where that person is at in his/her relationship with God. Many question where was God?; why did He allow this to be done to me?; where is this “healing balm” you pray about? They may not be able accept that God loves them. The abuser may have used God's name and words, and twisted who He is. Often, the survivor needs time to recognize God's love for her/him. We must be sensitive in offering words of support. I offer this humbly to you as I learned this from a survivor after offering similar words to her.

Addressing your last paragraph, first you mention that “Such judgments require wisdom and discretion, the likes of which can only be properly exercised in close relationship with people.” Those intent on doing harm are often manipulative, and can be effective in triangulating church staff and elders to remove accountability from their actions. There are numerous examples of deception at the church leadership level; most recently, think Willow Creek and the Catholic Churches. There are many Bible verses that warn of deceitful hearts. I also question your assertion that “... wisdom and discretion can only be ...” (emphasis mind.) Absolutes can be dangerous. When I am in need for God’s guidance, I often turn to others, especially my spiritual mentors. These spiritual mentors, while not in a close relationship with me, possess immense wisdom, and are on whom I rely to open my eyes to the Spirit’s direction. Dare I do it alone? No. On a personal and close community level, our own ability to self-deceive is really quite extraordinary. How might each decision be made easier and more Spirit-inspired if we involve a larger community – people and agencies emotionally distanced (“detached”) – to whom we can turn to at points of decision-making. Detachment can be a very good thing; those with objectivity are often better equipped to help you hear God speak. Secondly, in this last paragraph, you follow that sentence by stating “That is a closeness that agencies don’t possess, yet elders must possess.” I wonder if you belong to a small church where everyone knows everyone else (or thinks they do.) I belong to a church with an attendance of approximately 1,600 people. Based on that large number of congregants and the fact that our elders work on a three-year rotation, insisting that elders must possess such closeness is unrealistic and nearly impossible. I am grateful that my Council has access to the resources from “detached agencies” such as the CRCNA. I firmly believe that such agencies are used by the Spirit to support local congregations.

Safe Church personnel such as Eric and Bonnie have been invaluable to our church’s LiveSafe Team. We have been blessed by partnering with them to help our church become healthier and worthy of being the kind of church God is calling us to be; a church that reaches out, learns lessons, grows through healing, and demonstrates the love of Christ. May what we do individually and collectively as the church always glorify God, and advance His Kingdom here on earth. For that we are deeply dependent on God’s wisdom, strength, and transforming power. May God be glorified in all we do.

Note: The verses are quoted from the New International Version (NIV).

Hello Jane,

Please call me Eric – no need for the formality.  Thank you for engaging.  I accept your thoughts in the spirit in which you offer them.

It’s not just my impression that Eric was saying what churches “should” do, I reacting to him saying exactly that.  I quoted him – I didn’t just make that up.  

It’s also worth noting that there is a larger context at play here.  The Banner article that I linked in my conversation with Bonnie notes that some Synod delegates said “that in addition to telling the classes and congregations what should happen, synod should use its power to make them happen.”  The article goes on to state the following: “The question kept coming back to what more can synods do. Are they limited to “naming and shaming” or can they in a more direct way enforce Safe Church policies?”  It is in this context that I read Eric’s statement of what churches should be doing. 

I am most pleased that your church has benefited from the work of Safe Church Ministries at its staff – God be praised!  I have not here undertaken to disparage or tear down the Safe Church office, but to defend the autonomy and wisdom of the local church from heavy handed, GR-centric dictates. 

Thanks again for engaging, and I share your desire for God to be glorified in all that we do.

Participant

Eric

The problem is not what Eric is quoted as saying, the problem is one of semantics. Is it fair to hold Eric accountable for a word meaning that you inferred, but he did not intend? Eric has stated that "I don't take "should" to be that same as "must." It appears quite clear now that his post was not meant in an authoritative manner, but one offering resources. Eric's clarification was helpful to me, and I hope it was for you also.

I am interested in understanding the "larger context at play here." I cannot find The Banner article link you refer to. Could you please repost the link? 

Shalom.

 

Hello Jane,

I'm not really wanting to belabor the matter any further, but your inquiry is made in good faith, and so I mean to provide clarification in response. 

First, the link that you requested: https://www.thebanner.org/news/2018/06/synod-2018-confronts-abuse

Second, note that Eric did not respond with his "I didn't mean it that way" response until very late in the game, well after I had talked about and explained my concern.  His first response to me made no such mention, so there was no way for me to have any idea that he was intending something different than what he said.  He might have done well to simply initially recognize the problematic nature of the language he chose, acknowledge as much, make clarification, and amend his original post.  Seems simple enough if he was more intent on listening to feedback instead of rebuffing me. 

As to semantics, by all means, lets talk about semantics for a bit.  First, some definitions are in order, beginning with a definition of semantics:   "the study of the meanings of words and phrases in language".  Infer: "to form an opinion or reach a conclusion through reasoning and information ".  Should: "to be under necessity or obligation to".    Synonyms for should: "have (to), must, need, ought (to), shall".   (all definitions from Merriam-Webster online - variations are present based on source, but all contain the same core ideas)

To say something is about "semantics" is not properly understood as a way to dismiss the real and actual meanings of words used, but rather it is to delve into what words actually mean.  Yes, it does matter what Eric is quoted as saying.  I did not "infer" the meaning of what Eric said, as if I had to reason my way to a conclusion, because the word "should" has a distinct definition which I have reproduced here.  We reach inferences when things are not directly stated - such was not the case here.  If Eric did not mean to say that, it would have easy for him to correct it, but he chose a different route - first he deflected, and then he denied.  He would have done well to choose his words more carefully, particularly in the climate in which churches are in fact being sent the message that they must (synonym for should) comply with program labeling and content from headquarters or they will be held up for public shame.  This is the very real atmosphere in which Eric is speaking.  If he is wise, he will seek to be pastoral in this atmosphere, and being pastoral also means being able and willing to listen. 

Participant

Thanks Jane for your sensitivity here to those who have experienced abuse. And even though this is an aside, you are absolutely right that the trauma of abuse often has long-lasting effects, and the road to healing may be long and winding. Sometimes spiritual platitudes, however true they might be, simply are not able to be heard by someone who is still in the midst of the struggle about how a loving, all-powerful God could sit back and watch his beloved child be abused. It's indeed a struggle, and that struggle is part of the healing journey. There are no short cuts or easy fixes. Listening, listening and listening some more, and a silent ministry of being present can be so extremely valuable to someone who has suffered abuse. Safe Church is so thankful for the many people who have been willing to enter the difficult places and walk alongside over time. This is something we are unable to do from our office here in Grand Rapids and so depend on you and your ministry. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! 

Guide

It seems we're on different pages when it comes to grammar. I don't take "should" to be that same as "must"... http://www.differencebetween.net/language/grammar-language/difference-be...

Another way to look at it: I want to build a deck on my house, so I am soliciting FineHomeBuilding.com for some vetted ideas/best practices. They said I "should" not place my 4x4 posts into the concrete, rather it should be on top of the concrete footer with composite blocks between them. 

Then I submitted the plans to the housing officials and the coding official showed up and said we "must" do it to their specifications (I've worked some in the business and glad I don't have to worry about pulling permits ;).

Safe Church Ministry is here to support churches and help them, and share some best practices - like Fine Home Building does for housing. Safe Church is not in the business of enforcing anything. We don't have that authority. We are pointing towards other experts in the field, we are not assuming authority here. Your classis is there to assist your council accountability, we are not. 

I was really hoping to learn about other quality background check services from others with this Network post... 

Hi Eric,

Thanks for responding to me.  Thank you for your kind words. You are absolutely right about the Savior's healing balm for the wounded soul! I have experienced that healing balm!   

To me dialogue is important so we can better understand each other, and varying viewpoints from our own.  As brothers and sisters in Christ we share a common goal, and it's my hope and prayer that we can work together to advance the Kingdom of God here on earth and shed His Light on some of the dark places. 

I'm not going to say how your church should or shouldn't do things. I will just tell you how ours does it and the reasons why I agree with the way they do it. I also happen to have a 16 year old daughter. 

In our church if you wish to participate in a children's ministry or a ministry for vulnerable people you must have a criminal background check done.  It doesn't matter who you are or who you know.  You might be the police chief, the pastor, the army general, my 16 year old daughter, doesn't matter, you must have a criminal background check.  In our church there is no room for discretion, because discretion, in my humble opinion, is a loophole for someone trying to find away in without their past being exposed.  In our church you can sweet talk or schmooze all you want but with out a criminal background check you won't get in.  This helps me sleep at night knowing that I don't have to worry that the "wolf in sheep's" clothing is going to talk their way in and hurt one of our little ones.  I for one certainly wouldn't want to bear the burden of knowing that because someone duped me a child was abused. This doesn't guarantee that it won't happen, but it certainly is an obstacle to anyone trying to get in for the wrong reasons. We explained the reason for the criminal background check to all of our children (boys and girls) and they agreed with it 100%. Initially in our church there was some push back, but once everyone knew that everyone had to have one, and the reason why they had to have one, then most were okay with it. 

So I understand why Safe Church would like to see this across the denomination. "Not on our Watch" is the message to would be abusers when you have non-discretionary things like criminal back ground checks. Very rarely do you hear the post mortem on an abuse case, that people say of the abuser " I knew it, I  recognized them as an abuser".  Usually the comments are more like," I would have never suspected that person, they were so nice and friendly, what a shock".  

Thanks for hearing me out.

Frank

Hi Frank,

Thank you for your response.  I too value dialogue – iron sharpening iron. 

I respect and honor the decisions made in your local church in this arena.  That is in keeping with the thrust of my interaction here.  I have no interest in attempting to dissuade you from your convictions in that respect.  A couple follow-up notes:

1) It seems as though the reasoning that you proffer could quite consistently be applied to mandatory criminal background checks for the whole congregation and all visitors.  After all, can we really know who is lurking, what their intent is, and when/how they might attempt an assault?  Don’t all of our members come into contact with children and other potential victims?  Now, you may think this unpastoral and unnecessary.  But suppose for a moment that someone from outside your church, perhaps a denominational agency, assumed to tell you that you should do this at the local level.  And suppose if you didn’t acquiesce to the protection protocol of the denomination, they threatened to “name and shame” you until you did.  Not so conducive to unity and harmony in the church, it seems to me. 

 

2)  Switching to a slightly different, but related, topic in order to drive home the point: Imagine with me a denominational agency called Armed Church Ministry.  This agency is equipped with studies, statistics, and stories about mass shootings in places of public gathering and realizes that the common link in most of these shootings is the assailant’s conclusion that he has identified a soft target.  Now, this agency knows how God values human life, and how much grief, destruction, and trauma results from such incidents of violence.  Additionally, this agency takes seriously the recognition in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 107 that God wants us “to protect [our neighbor] from harm as much as we can.”  In this light, the Armed Church Ministry devises safety protocols under the creative moniker “Armed Church” and begins to encourage churches to adopt the protocols and the moniker.  Over time, encouragement turns to urging, turns to telling churches what they should do, turns to demanding, turns to public shaming for noncompliance.  The protocols are as follows:

 

-  All churches should have a message on their website and on their visible church sign that they are an Armed Church and that violent offenders should be aware that armed personnel are present at every gathering.

-  All churches should have a metal detector at each entrance. 

-  All visitors should be screened before attending public worship services.

-  All churches should have armed guards who open-carry their weapons, so that violence can be dissuaded.

Initially, there will be some push back, but eventually most will be ok with it.  After violent incidents in public places, we so often hear “I had no idea Johnny was capable of that”. 

I don’t say those things to mock or belittle Safe Church or its staff.  I love each person involved.  I do think that the church can experience mission creep, and I do think that a recurring theme from Grand Rapids is the top-down mentality that we profess to not believe in.  This top-down mentality does not strengthen or vitalize the denomination, but leads to a greater and greater disconnect and loss of unity (witness denominational ministry shares struggles).  This is a real problem in the CRC, and it is evident in numerous arenas.

Participant

Thank you for all the thoughtful comments on this article. When it comes to policies to prevent abuse, a criminal background check is widely considered standard best practice, and many insurers require it. Therefore, we are confident in recommending it to our churches, knowing full well that we work only in an advisory capacity - decisions like this are up to individual church councils.

And please forgive us at Safe Church if we seem to come off as the experts or as arrogant in our opinions, that is certainly not our intent. I have had no formal legal training and would never consider myself an expert on policy matters - I have some experience, that's all. And you'll notice that many of our resources and referrals come from outside the CRC, from other organizations who have devoted themselves to a certain area and have far more experience and expertise than we do. We encourage churches to take advantage of these kinds of resources. We also see this Network space as a place to share and to learn from one another. We are working to develop classis safe church teams so that they can be a more local resource to churches in the classis, each team member bringing their own unique gifts and skills. Please note that it's the many requests for assistance from churches and individuals with questions about background checks and policy that led us to write this article, and seek your expertise as well. So, again thank you for your thoughts and contributions in this learning space. 

Bonnie, you guys are doing great job that is not easy! I will pray for you guys and your program you represent! Hopefully, the Lord will use this effort to his glory! Thank You