Background Checks 101
5 Frequently Asked Questions About Employee Screening, Answered

Churches are trusting environments — sometimes to their own detriment. If you’re curious about how background checks can help protect your church, your staff and yourself, read on.

Our Experts

Paul Tollner
Director of National Accounts Intelius 

Daniel Paulsen
General Partner Employment Screening Alliance Inc. 

1. For what ministries is it especially important to conduct background checks?

Paul Tollner: Churches have a special responsibility to screen anyone providing support or services to members of a church community. Within that community, there are particularly vulnerable groups — the elderly, children and families. Screening helps ensure the church’s goals and reputation aren’t subverted by an individual with mal-intent, while providing extra peace of mind for church leaders, the congregation and the community-at-large.

Daniel Paulsen: The obvious answer is Sunday school and youth ministries, including sports activities and camps. Also to be included is any position that requires fiduciary responsibilities.

2. Which is better: a blanket approach or selectively screening?

Paulsen: Because cost is always so important, churches have the tendency to say, ‘We really know all our employees and volunteers, so we don’t even need to perform this function.’ Then they screen only those directly associated with a particular function, like a youth ministry. The real answer is to screen all employees and volunteers. Do a good search, not just the least expensive one available.

Tollner: Churches should set a policy for when they screen applicants — whether upon receipt of an application or following an interview — and stick to it for every position within the church.

3. At what point should a church begin the screening process?

Tollner: Precisely when the background check happens is less important than the background check results being received well before a new hire or volunteer spends a single minute working on behalf of the church. By developing a standard practice and staying organized, a church can ensure that nobody slips between the cracks.

Paulsen: As with any nonprofit, money is a key consideration. We have found it’s most effective to screen when an offer is made and accepted — that is, make the offer pending acceptable results of the background check. You can usually get results in a few days or less.

4. How much can churches expect to pay?

Paulsen: We’ve found that churches often try to take the road of least cost. Knowing this, screening companies often offer searches — like a nationwide scan — that aren’t effective. A standard profile should include, at the very least, a social security number search, an all-states sex offender registry search, and a state and/ or county criminal search for all addresses found in the social security number search. The cost will vary, but if the church is working with a screening company used to partnering with churches, they can normally ask for — and get — a package price as low as $25 to $50 per applicant.

Tollner: Budget is a concern for organizations that haven’t historically employed a screening program. There’s the temptation of settling for a free service, or neglecting background checks altogether. Both these alternatives are dangerous. It’s important to remember that when it comes to background checks, free information is typically worth exactly what it costs. When it comes to the trust of a congregation, background checks aren’t the place to cut corners. Planning and prioritizing of budget, coupled with the support of a church community, can result in a healthy and accurate screening program. Congregations are generally glad to contribute to a program with such an important role.

And here’s a thought: Why not ask those who want the privilege of volunteering for church programs — whether it’s coaching a soccer team, running a summer camp or hosting a youth group — to pay for the expense of their background checks? The price of background checks depends on two variables: volume and detail.

For each position, criminal background information is important, but for a position offering access to church finances, a credit check might be also be necessary, while a childcare position might warrant a DMV record check.

Volume also drives down the per-search cost. Broadly speaking, a church should anticipate spending $20 and $30 per applicant.

5. Any cautionary tales of churches that didn’t bother to run background checks?

Paulsen: There have been instances of fraud and child molestation in the areas of finance and youth ministry, but most fraud cases aren’t prosecuted and deal with hidden monies. Much of the bad press comes from the child youth areas and deals as much with drug use and molestation. In these cases, churches have admitted loss of parishioners and revenue.

Please understand these are the exceptions, not the rule — but we’re talking about institutions that can’t afford any mishaps.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh

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