One of the first ministries developed in a new church is the children’s ministry, and one of the greatest assets to the new ministry is adult volunteers. Whether nursery workers or youth group chaperones, these volunteers provide the care, mentoring and valuable manpower that is needed to help a ministry thrive. Oftentimes, an “all hands on deck” approach is taken in recruiting volunteers simply because it takes a lot of people to care for the children in your church. However, in the quest to fill much needed volunteer spots, many churches decide not to screen or train volunteers, fearing that doing so may deter persons from volunteering. This should not be the case. Churches need to take care in choosing who will have access to the most important people in the building: the children.
One of the ways churches can manage access to its children is by requiring criminal background checks on all persons—volunteers and employees—who will work with children and youth. No church should be without these checks; they are an effective tool for determining whether a potential employee or volunteer is safe to care for children. The justification for background checks is compelling. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, one particular national youth organization chose not to perform background checks. Consequently, the organization admitted over 200 men who had previously been arrested or convicted of sex crimes as volunteers in the organization’s youth programs. Although the organization slowly began requiring criminal background checks for new volunteers, it was not until 2008 that the organization ultimately ordered background checks for all volunteers. Hundreds of cases of child molestation occurred during the interim. As a result, young lives were destroyed by abuse and a once effective nonprofit is now struggling to overcome the legal challenges, as well as shame, from its failure to protect youth in its care.
This should be a warning for all churches and ministries. Just because your church is a religious organization does not mean it is insulated from those who may abuse children. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of cases of abuse arising from children’s and youth ministries. But churches are not helpless! A church should implement systems that will screen all employees and volunteers to prevent the opportunity for abuse as well as train employees and volunteers to spot and report suspected misconduct. Not only will proper screening and training set safeguards around the children and youth, it will also protect the church from engaging in the negligent hiring of employees and negligent supervision of volunteers. Negligent hiring is when the employer knew or should have known key background facts of the employee that indicated a dangerous background. Negligent supervision of volunteers is when volunteers are improperly supervised, allowing injury to occur. These common legal claims arise when abuse occurs within the church. Careful hiring and supervision will help prevent even the opportunity for abuse.
Many churches have buckled under court judgments for failing to show they did enough to protect children in their care. In response, I developed The Guardian System. This program gives ministries confidence that they’re demonstrating the care needed to protect children. The foundation of The Guardian System is a four-step tool known as S.T.O.P.: Screen, Train, Operate and P.L.A.N.
Often, churches “trust and believe” when they should “trust but verify.” We need to remember that Jesus said to “be shrewd as serpents…” By implementing S.T.O.P. you will wisely improve the protection of children in your care. Our legal system demands you show due care when giving access to children, and children deserve that care. By following these four steps you will enable your ministry to minimize opportunities for evil.
S – Screen
A properly designed screening process should be the gatekeeper for entering children’s ministry. Most importantly, a screening process will help uncover those with evil intentions. It is difficult to understand how someone who wants to work with children could have evil intentions. But case after case has shown that for many abusers, moving to a job or volunteer opportunity with access to children is often intentional. A properly developed screening process will help weed out wolves in sheep’s clothing.
A screening should consist of several steps and should not only consist of a face-to-face interview. Many times, abusers are very likeable people and it may be difficult to believe they could harm anyone. The first step in the screening process is creating job descriptions, even for volunteers. Every position involving direct contact with children should have a written description of duties and responsibilities. A good job description helps you control the contact employees and volunteers have with children. You set the boundaries for a job, not the employee or the volunteer.
Along with a thorough job description, a written application should begin the screening process. A carefully crafted application allows the church to obtain important information from the applicant, which you can verify through outside sources. Finally, do not let employees or volunteers begin their work prior to your receipt of the completed application. Make it clear that until you have a completed application, applicants are not allowed to work or volunteer.
You should also classify employees and volunteers according to their contact with children. For example, persons who have direct contact with children or youth and may be called upon for events such as overnight excursions need to be supervised at a higher level than volunteers who may only work in the parking lot or directing traffic. Classifying volunteers will help you allocate supervision and training.
Finally, face-to-face interviews, obtaining references and performing criminal background checks are the very last, but arguably most important, parts of your screening process. An interview will help you have a “gut check” about the applicant: listen to your gut check. If you perform a reference check or criminal background check that comes back positive for violent or sexual crimes, the applicant should be immediately disqualified from primary contact with children. While an applicant’s life may have changed since they committed crimes, it does not mean you have to place the applicant in primary contact with children. Remember to screen existing employees and volunteers if you are just beginning to perform background checks. No one should be excused due to seniority.