Churches and youth-serving organizations attract offenders. Churches, specifically, are easy targets because there tends to be a high level of trust, as well as a great need for volunteers to ensure that programs operate and run smoothly.
For this reason, it is imperative that churches have a methodical process of recruiting and screening employees and volunteers for suitability of service within child and youth-serving ministries and compatibility with the church’s values and child protection policies. An informed process is important; a hurried search and recruitment of employees and volunteers just to fill spots and have the right numbers can be dangerous and places children and youth in danger. An unhurried, methodical process of hiring and recruitment allows churches to properly vet, get to know, and get a feel for a person and whether he or she is a fit for a particular ministry. The process must include time and a place for evaluation and potential discovery of red flags.
With this in mind, churches should view the hiring and recruitment process as an opportunity for the ministry to get to know the applicant and the applicant to get acquainted with the ministry. Good policy and best practices around hiring and recruitment of employees and volunteers will lower risk and increase safety for children and youth within your church. The screening process for employees and volunteers for your church should include the following:
- Written application
- Background check
- Reference check
- Internet/social media search
- Orientation and training
During this process, your aim is to screen out applicants who are not a good fit for the ministry and to emphasize your church’s priority of protecting children. First, a written application allows you to gain valuable information. The application should have all of the standard types of questions, but there are key areas to cover in evaluating employees and volunteers from a child-protection perspective. Some suggested components your written application could include are:
- Ask for a list of all experience working with children/youth, including paid formal employment, babysitting, volunteer positions, summer jobs, camps, or church work. Ask for the applicant to include start dates, reason for leaving, position and responsibilities, supervisor and contact information.
- Ask if the applicant has ever been suspended, asked to leave, or fired from a job.
- Ask if the applicant has ever been suspended or expelled from high school or college (this is primarily for youth and young adult workers).
- Ask about criminal history.
- Ask if the applicant has ever been accused of hurting or abusing a child.
- Ask if the applicant has ever been asked to step down from a position of leadership in a church.
- Ask the applicant about areas where he/she needs improvement or he/she finds challenging in working with children or youth.
The second task in the screening process is a background check. Any time there is a news report or press conference on abuse by an employee or volunteer, the organization is quick to wave the clean background check. We have been conditioned to believe that a background check gives us some sort of guarantee. Background checks are necessary but are never a guarantee that a person is safe. They may provide the organization with other data points of bad judgment or lifestyle issues that may inform a decision. Background checks should be run initially and then at regular intervals throughout employment or service—at least every three years. All applicants and volunteers should be treated the same. In addition, make sure that you understand what you are getting from your background check provider.
A third task in the screening process is a reference check. Reference checks are a must when screening for employees and volunteers. A reference is not helpful unless you follow through and actually talk to the references. Reference checks should always occur prior to hiring, not as a “check the box” step. They are most useful when they occur prior to the interview because they will provide information that will help you evaluate the applicant during the interview. View the list of employers, volunteer supervisors, and personal references as data points that should be pursued in order to verify the person’s identity and that he or she does not have any red flags from previous employment or ministry work. Employment references should be verified for accuracy and job performance. Other churches or ministries where the applicant has served should be contacted regarding those positions and the individual’s interaction with children and youth.
Some helpful topics to cover when interviewing references are as follows:
- Verification of the position, responsibilities, and tenure of the applicant;
- Relationship with the applicant and length of time known;
- Applicant’s interaction with children/youth;
- Applicant’s interaction with supervisors;
- Applicant’s style of correction of behavior or discipline of children in his/her care;
- Applicant’s strengths in working with children/youth;
- Applicant’s weaknesses or challenges in working with children/youth;
- Does reference have any hesitancy in recommending this applicant to work with children/youth;
- Any complaints your organization received in regard to this applicant; and
- Whether the organization would have the applicant back in the future.
The fourth task in the screening process is an interview. This is your opportunity to be face to face with the applicant or potential volunteer. Direct questions about prior jobs and interaction with children and youth are helpful. It is also a time for you to educate the applicant about your church/ministry area and your vision and priority for child protection.
In educating about your church, review your child protection policies during the interview and ask if the person has any questions or concerns with following the policies. The applicant’s reaction may be a helpful indicator of the level of “buy-in” to child protection.
Finally, as either part of the written application or a written portion of the interview, review key parts of your policy and have the applicant affirm and initial the applicant’s commitment to and awareness of policy. Some examples of statements for the applicant to review, initial, and ascribe to are:
_____ I have received and read a copy of [church’s] child protection policy;
_____ I will protect children/youth and will never engage in any behavior that is dangerous or will harm them physically, emotionally, or spiritually;
_____I will immediately report any inappropriate behavior that I observe or hear about regarding children/youth and violations of the child protection policy;
______I will immediately report any known or suspected abuse that I observe or hear about to church leadership and government authorities.
______I will abide by all terms of the child protection policy, and if I have any questions, I will ask for clarity.
By addressing abuse and child protection policies with applicants in the recruiting and interviewing process, your church is sending a clear message about the value you place on children and your priority of keeping them safe from harm. At the same time, you are learning more about the applicant and whether he or she is a good fit from the perspective of beliefs, background, safety, experience, demeanor, and responsibility.
Social media review
Another task in the screening process that many youth organizations have found helpful is a review of social media. By reviewing social media postings, you may be able to ascertain values, discernment, and interactions with children. A general Google search might yield information as well. In my legal experience, the red flags that are often found on social media are inappropriate pictures, suggestive or even explicit comments, and excessive commenting and interest in children or youth by someone older. You may find some of these red flags, or you may come across other information that indicates this person is not a good fit for ministry service.
Orientation and training
The final step in the hiring and recruitment process is orientation and training of your new volunteers and employees regarding your ministry area and child protection policy. While this occurs after a decision to hire or an invitation for volunteer to serve, solid training on policy and abuse dynamics must happen early and on a regular basis throughout one’s employment or service to the ministry. Many liability carriers require training on a one- to three-year basis, but consistent training, even in shorter modules, will reinforce the church’s priority on abuse prevention and child safety.
Lastly, your church might consider a trial period for employees and volunteers where there is increased supervision and evaluation in order to do a six-month or one-year follow-up review in order to access performance and fit within the ministry.
An organization cannot know or test for a person’s probability of offending. Instead, leaders must rely on intuition and observations. If you are uncomfortable or something does not feel right about an applicant, you are better off postponing entry into employment or volunteer positions with children or youth until the church has more experience and interaction with that person.
Being thorough in your hiring of staff and volunteers for your children and youth ministries, requires effort, but it takes seriously the duty of the shepherd to protect the flock. It also heeds Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:6, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Screening should go beyond a simple background check and should also include an application process, a reference check, an interview, an internet and social media search, and orientation and training.
This is part three of a five-part series. (Read: Parts one and two). Visit caringwell.com to learn more about the Caring Well Challenge and help make your church safe for survivors and safe from abuse.
The content of this post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice. Employment laws vary from state to state. Please consult with an employment attorney in your area to review the language of your application, reference check, and interview questions in order to ensure that your practices do not violate the laws of your state.