Background checks on champions?

A post in Get Religion this week made me realize it’s time for you and I to have That Talk.

Get Religion links to a piece from Bob Allen at Associated Baptist Press that points out that:

One in eight background checks conducted on volunteers or prospective employees through Lifeway Christian Resources found a criminal history that might have kept an individual from working or volunteering at a church.

While most screenings returned clean records or only minor traffic offenses, Lifeway said, 80 found serious felony offenses and more than 600 had some type of criminal history that may have disqualified them from volunteering or working at a church.

While not a statistically representative sample, 450 churches is 1 percent of the 44,848 Southern Baptist congregations claimed in Lifeway’s most recent Annual Church Profile. Projected onto the other 99 percent of Southern Baptist churches, that would add up to 8,000 serious felony offenses and more than 60,000 people with some sort of checkered past in churches across the convention.

Given that Transformational Giving thinks in terms of “all-in” champions being comprehensively coached to advance the cause within their sphere of influence (as opposed to donors just writing checks), does that mean that we should run background checks on all of our champions?

Doing that kind of screening on people at the Participant level would seem to be impractical, but a case might be made for including a background check as part of the explicit covenant you make with champions transitioning from P to E, or for O-level champions whose activity has a more direct bearing on or connection with your organization. I think this is at least worth a serious discussion on a ministry-by-ministry basis, but I’m not so sure it would be my first move in every case.

Reason, which Bob shares in his article:

The Centers for Disease Control say background checks are only one tool in screening and selection of church workers. By themselves, they can be counterproductive, creating a false sense of security.

They recommend guidelines on interactions between individuals, such as a “6/2 rule”, a policy that states anyone working with children or youth must be an active member of your church for at least six months before assuming a position of leadership and that there must be at least two non-related adults in the room with minors at all times.

Other safeguards include monitoring and supervision, ensuring safe environments for children, having a plan in place to respond to inappropriate behavior and training about prevention of child sexual abuse.

A few notes about this:

  • This is not an added burden a ministry acquires when it decides to take a Transformational Giving (TG) approach instead of a traditional/transactional fundraising (ttf) approach. Even the most ttf ministry absolutely must have systems like this in place.
  • The CDC advice is telegraphed to churches and prevention of child sexual abuse, but it can (and should) be broadened in our understanding and application to include all Christian nonprofits and all causes where vulnerability of individuals is an issue. That includes everything from dealing with individuals with marital problems to rape cases to ministry to the homeless to virtually every cause that deals with people, frankly.
  • When we approach the matter biblically, we’re not just looking at a negative duty to prevent harm but also a positive duty to ensure healthy relationships and coach for growth in the likeness of Christ. We’re not just dealing with issues that a background search would turn up (though don’t discount the usefulness and necessity of such tools in your situation). We’re also talking here about emotional and spiritual issues that arise anytime an individual becomes passionate about a cause.

Case in point: I’m helping a ministry deal with a challenging discipleship situation at the moment involving a champion who came on strong as a veritable bundle of passion related to the cause. No sacrifice was too great, no involvement opportunity too taxing, no donation too much to give.

Sounds perfect, right?

Now, a year in, the champion is struggling with severe issues of anxiety and depression. The champion confessed channeling all donations to the nonprofit, canceling other donation commitments including any to the local church. In the process of being “all in”, the champion got burnt “all out”.

Would such a thing show up on a background check? Unlikely.

Does the ministry have a responsibility to know these things about individuals ahead of time? Unfair.

But can a ministry set up processes and safeguards such that champions are limited for their own good from being overwhelmed by their passion and overcommitting to the cause?

This is where cooperation with the local church–in the form of champion-consented “pastor checks” (or even informal consultations) on individuals seeking to make major commitments of time, energy, and even financial resources to your cause and through your organization–may be the most essential background check we can ever make.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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