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Leaders of short-term mission teams are keenly aware that the top priority is the safety of team members. Similarly, many community organizations, schools, and sports associations take actions to ensure that safety comes first.

Aside from being dedicated to helping others, volunteers who participate in a mission trip, coach the local baseball or soccer team, assist in the classroom or serve at the local food bank have one more thing in common — they have most likely completed a criminal background check.

Some states and provinces require a background check for any staff or volunteer who has contact with children, the elderly or with vulnerable or disabled persons and who is serving at a government-regulated facility or institution (schools, nursing homes). For many community organizations or charities, the background check is not a legal duty, but rather a policy requirement as part of their measures to protect those they serve.

Many churches have also adopted a policy of requiring a background check for all staff and volunteers who work closely with children, youth, the elderly, and vulnerable or disabled persons. Many other churches continue to struggle with whether or not to require these checks, and if so then for which staff and volunteer positions.

For those churches and organizations still wrestling with this issue, the debate often comes down to weighing the risks against the cost and inconvenience when it may already be difficult to attract volunteers. And, within a faith-based community where members are known to each other and have been part of that community for many years, there can be the added concern that requiring a background check implies distrust or suspicion. 

A criminal background check also has the potential to expose previous ‘sins’, even if those incidents are in the distant past and have little or no relevance to what the volunteer will be doing.  While crimes involving violence, abuse, and sexual offenses will disqualify an applicant from many volunteer positions, there are other offenses that can be satisfied through transparency, supervision, and grace.

If your congregation is still wrestling with the question of whether or not to require background checks, here are a few guidelines to help you through the evaluation process.

Begin by knowing the current law within your state or province.  Are background checks required for certain paid or volunteer positions? How likely is it that those whom you are serving, or their parents/guardians, will expect that your volunteers have been screened? What is the practice of other comparable organizations within your community? If your organization has insurance coverage in the event of abuse, what screening requirements are contained in the policy?

Should your organization decide that background checks will not be required, there may be other measures that can be taken to minimize potential risks, such as always requiring that at least two volunteers be present and that the schedule is prepared by a coordinator rather than by the volunteers themselves.

If you decide to require background checks, encourage your organization’s leadership to lead by example, and clearly communicate to your volunteers that this policy is not driven by distrust but rather by a genuine desire to show professional commitment toward those you are serving and your volunteer workforce.

There are also some steps that can be taken to help volunteers through the process. Begin by contacting your local police department, and explain what you are doing and why. Most police forces will be quite accustomed to providing criminal background checks and can offer advice for simplifying the process. While the volunteer will likely be required to file their background check application in person, it may be possible for your organization to obtain and distribute the application forms. There may also be a process for having any fees waived or discounted for community-service or charitable volunteer positions.

In many situations, background checks can also be done online. Assist your volunteers by providing information about reputable online services. And, consider if your organization is prepared to reimburse some or all of the expense. A typical background check will cost $40 or less. While most volunteers will be prepared to absorb that cost, your organization will better know their circumstances and may want to consider reimbursing these expenses.

Whatever your organization’s policy is toward criminal background checks, the most important thing is that you deliberately take time to consider your specific situation and the needs and expectations of those you serve. And, if you need assistance in this process or advice for implementing your decision, ServiceLink is here to assist and serve you. Please feel free to contact us by sending an email to [email protected] or by calling 1-800-730-3490.


Thanks for this informative article.

Church Law and Tax Report creates a list each year of the top 5 reasons that churches end up in court ( At the top of the list each year since 2010 is "Sexual Abuse of a Minor". We must not bury our heads in the sand and assume that it won't happen in our congregations. Having a safe church/abuse prevention policy in place, which includes background checks for staff and volunteers is an important step in protecting the children, youth, and vulnerable adults that have been entrusted to our care. It's also an important step in protecting our congregations from allegations, lawsuits, and financial ruin as well.

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