Predators: What Can We Do?
The story of the weekend has been the alleged sex-abuse “scandal” in the Southern Baptist Convention. While (so far) nowhere near the severity of the recent Catholic scandal, all of us in the SBTS blogosphere — and I hope in the churches — are in agreement that if there is even one sex offender filling the role of minister in our churches, that is one too many. For an excellent collection of articles, videos and blog posts, see Timmy Brister’s compilation Southern Baptist Sex Offenders.
In that post, Timmy asks the question, “How should a Convention of autonomous churches hold one another accountable and provide full disclosure of all prospective ministers so as to prevent sexual abuse from happening and promote justice when it has?”
In this post, I will not attempt to answer in full the second part of the question. The answer to that should be obvious. Promoting justice means any and all such offenders should be immediately reported to the authorities for investigation and/or prosecution. It is incumbent upon churches to receive an allegation, confront the accused, and report the allegation to the authorities.
The problem for many of us, however, is from the first part of Timmy’s question. How can we screen potential ministers and hold our sister churches accountable? As I am in the process of thinking about just that for our church plant, I’d like to suggest a few things our churches can do. We may not even need the SBC to do it for us.
Anyone who applies for a staff position (pastor, associate pastor, music minister, etc.) is automatically subject to a thorough background check, whether he/she works with children/youth or adults. This background check should include the usual criminal check and cross-reference the national sex offender registry. The sex offender registry can be accessed online; criminal checks can be done for free by most local associations and state denominations, and as I understand it some local police agencies. The check should include a review of any academic degrees and professional credentials. The last formal stage of the check should include a credit check or financial review to assess the risk for financial mismanagement.
In addition, potential ministerial staff should be required to submit a list of all churches of which they have been a member. A church can then contact those churches and hopefully determine if they left that church in good standing, or if any problems occurred as a result of their membership. This does not include pastorates or other staff placements, it is simply their membership history outside of being “paid staff.”
Lastly, potential ministerial staff absolutely must list every staff position held at every church in which they have served, paid or volunteer. This would include in addition to paid staff positions such volunteer positions like Sunday School teacher, prayer leader, visitation leader, Royal Ambassador/AWANA/Girls in Action leader, Vacation Bible School, and so on. A church absolutely must review these placements and contact those churches as to the details of their service, effectiveness, and any problems that manifested during their service. This will go a much longer way towards protecting our churches than anything else.
Letters of Recommendation.
Furthermore, for a ministerial staff position, no fewer than two letters of recommendation should be required, and the writers of those letters should be, at best, senior pastors. At worst letters should come from ordained associational leaders or state/national denominational leaders. These letters should testify as to the candidate’s character, education, and ability at the very minimum. Churches must be able to verify the pastorates or offices of the letter writers and speak at length with them about the candidate.
I think that not only the pulpit committee or staff committee responsible for hiring staff should interview a candidate, but that (especially in smaller churches) the entire church should have an opportunity to interview a candidate. Perhaps after a candidate has been invited to preach as part of the selection process, there can be a Q & A session immediately following so that the congregation can get to know the candidate and ask questions about the candidate. This session would be followed by a second interview with the pulpit committee to review any questions that may come up as a result.
Discipleship and Interviewing of Volunteers.
For a volunteer staff position (like those listed above), I think the above background checks should be sufficient. In addition, I would like to suggest that such volunteers be personally discipled by the staff person in charge of the position so as to determine the volunteer’s fitness for ministry. This discipling would be rigorous and transparent for the volunteer, and also confidential unless serious moral/criminal lapses are uncovered. At the conclusion of this period of discipleship, the volunteer should be interviewed by the ministerial staff, and possibly the ministry being served. For example, we should allow our youth to participate in the interviewing of candidates for youth minister or youth ministry volunteer. I have applied for both a youth minister and youth ministry volunteer position in the past and this very thing was done as part of the process. My respect for the churches and their youth increased greatly on this point alone. Only at the completion of this process should a volunteer be permitted to assume his/her duties.
In order to hold our ministers and volunteers accountable, I would first suggest that every Southern Baptist church follow the steps suggested above. If every church had something like this in place, we could then make it a policy that all information uncovered during the investigation will be shared with any future potential ministry placements upon their request. This means that if a minister applies for a position elsewhere, our church will make available the records we have to the entity applied to, upon their request. The minister does not have a say in this. If our ministers are truly people of integrity, they would invite inquiry to their character when seeking a position.
This applies to volunteers as well. If a member leaves our church and seeks to volunteer at their new church, and that church has the same policies described above, then we are going to be contacted about said member. We will also share the results of our investigation and discipleship with the church, under the same confidentiality agreement.
Any church hiring or allowing to volunteer someone who has failed any step of this process quite simply would have no excuse. I would almost argue that to hire such a person or allow such a person to volunteer is tantamount to inviting such a person to take advantage of the church.
I think there is more that we can do, but I think this is a good start. I welcome any further suggestions to this basic foundation I have laid out.