Guide to Church Background Checks

Karen Axelton
October 11, 2023
6 min read

Churches and other religious organizations rely on both employees and volunteers to fulfill their missions. Conducting church background checks can be an important step in protecting your congregation, maintaining your organization’s reputation, and finding individuals that are the right fit for a particular role. Insurance companies may also require background checks for churches before issuing insurance policies.

In this article, we’ll explain why church background checks are important, what background screenings a church may want to perform, how to develop an effective church background checks policy, and more.

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What is a church background check?

Faith-based organizations and religious institutions, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples often perform ministry background checks on job candidates or potential volunteers to verify the individual’s qualifications for the desired role and help protect themselves from legal liability.

What do churches look for in background checks? Churches often conduct screenings to look for an arrest or conviction history, while also confirming other background information to help determine the eligibility of a potential employee or volunteer. Common screenings include criminal background checks for church volunteers, education and employment verification, drug testing, and reference checks.

Your religious organization’s governing body or legal counsel may also have guidelines or requirements regarding the types of background checks needed for employees and volunteers.

What does a church background check show?

The results of a church background check will depend on the type and scope of searches required by the organization, which may vary. A comprehensive background screening may include several searches, such as:

  • Criminal background checks for church volunteers and employees may search national and state criminal databases, sex offender registries, and county courthouse records. The criminal history check typically shows felony and misdemeanor convictions, and may also show lesser infractions, but this can vary based on state and local laws.
  • Education verification confirms the dates the candidate attended school, the degree earned, and the major.
  • Employment verifications confirm former employment and may show past job titles and employment dates.
  • Motor vehicle reports (MVRs) show a person’s driving history. This typically includes the status of the driver’s license, the class of license held, and traffic violations. It may also include DUI convictions depending on the jurisdiction.
  • Reference checks contact professional references to ask questions about a candidate’s character, job performance, and strengths and weaknesses.

Why is it important to conduct background checks for churches?

Background checks for church workers and volunteers help safeguard your faith community’s members from potential threats, mitigate liability risk, and ensure that employees and volunteers have the necessary qualifications for success in their roles. Insurance carriers may require background screenings as a condition of issuing coverage such as sexual conduct liability insurance, directors’ and officers’ insurance, religious counseling services liability insurance or commercial auto insurance.

  • Whether background checks for church volunteers are required by law depends on a variety of factors, including state law, the duties of the position, and whether the person is an employee or volunteer. Background checks may be legally required if the individual will be working with vulnerable populations, such as children or seniors.
  • For example, California Bus. & Prof. Code §18975 requires youth service groups, including churches, to obtain fingerprints and conduct background checks of employees and volunteers to identify people with a record of child abuse.
  • Pennsylvania law requires employees working directly with children to undergo a Pennsylvania child abuse clearance, criminal background check, and FBI background check before beginning employment.
  • In some cases, churches may provide childcare services for members of the congregation or the public. Under federal law, all states and territories must ensure that employees and volunteers of licensed childcare programs undergo state and federal criminal background checks. These screenings must include:
  • A search of the National Sex Offender Registry
  • A national FBI criminal history check, including fingerprints
  • A search of the state criminal registry or repository, State sex offender registry or repository, and state-based child abuse and neglect registry and database where the individual lives, as well as any states where they have lived in the past five years.

Every state has an Adult Protective Services (APS) agency that protects seniors and other vulnerable adults. Many states maintain APS registries of individuals convicted of having abused vulnerable adults. Faith-based organizations that provide services for seniors or adults with disabilities may be required to check these registries.

Should churches do background checks even when they’re not legally required? When making this decision, consider the potential legal liability and reputational harm that could arise without a background check. Even if church background checks aren’t required by law or your insurance company, they can provide peace of mind for you and your congregation.

How often should churches do background checks?

There are no federal or state laws requiring rescreening of church employees and volunteers after an initial background check. You should note, however, that federal and state legal requirements may apply for certain positions, such as volunteers working with children or the elderly. Your organization may also have its own guidelines.

In general, experts advise performing new background checks of employees and volunteers every two to five years.

How long do background checks for churches take?

Turnaround times for church background checks vary depending on the location, scope of the search and how many screenings you’re conducting. For example, online background checks for churches are generally faster than background checks that require calling an employer or visiting a courthouse.

Here's how long common church background checks usually take when performed by a CRA:

Background screeningAverage turnaround time
Criminal records checksOne to three business days, depending on the number of checks requested and the availability of records. For instance, Checkr completes 98% of national criminal searches within an hour; searches that require visiting a courthouse for a criminal history will take longer. 
Employment verificationsOne to five business days. 
Education verificationsThese online background checks for churches can usually be completed immediately through the National Student Clearinghouse database. 
Reference checksTwo to five business days. 
MVR checksGenerally available the same day unless the state records are not digitized
Drug testingSame day for tests performed on-site at your church; two to five business days for tests performed at an outside lab. 

Checkr uses machine learning to provide estimated completion at the county level to keep you, your candidates, and your potential volunteers apprised of the status of background checks.

Handling background screening yourself can add significant time to the background check process, taking valuable hours from your core mission of ministry. For example, performing your own criminal records searches requires researching the appropriate courthouses or registries to contact; applying for permission to search their records; and may even mean visiting courthouses in person to access records. You could also spend weeks emailing or calling former employers, schools, or references, instead of getting volunteers and employees to work quickly.

Consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), in contrast, can save you time and speed turnaround times because they have access to databases that streamline the screening process; experience navigating courthouses; and extensive knowledge of federal, state, and local laws regulating background checks.

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How far back do church background checks go?

In general, there are no laws restricting how far back ministry background checks can go. Lookback periods for church background checks depend on the type and scope of search, whether you are using a CRA to conduct the search or searching on your own, and any applicable federal or state laws.

Background checks done through a CRA, like Checkr, must follow the regulations of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA restricts non-conviction information reported by a CRA to a 7-year lookback period which includes arrests, civil judgments, tax liens, and most credit report information. It excludes bankruptcies, which may be reported for up to 10 years and criminal convictions, which may be reported indefinitely. If a candidate’s expected salary is $75,000 or higher or if searches are conducted by the employer themselves, these limitations may not apply. The FCRA look-back restrictions also do not apply to employment history, and education verification.

Church background check requirements to consider

How can you ensure your church background check process runs smoothly and in compliance with applicable laws? The best background checks for churches follow these practices:

  • Develop detailed descriptions for jobs and volunteer positions. This will help you determine which types of background checks are necessary for which roles. For example, a credit history check could be appropriate when hiring an employee to manage your church’s finances, but not necessary for volunteers working with children.
  • Create a written church background check policy**.** You may need different policies for church volunteer background checks and employment background checks. Especially when onboarding volunteers, applying a consistent background screening policy can help prevent pushback against the idea of background checks.
  • Develop application forms for volunteers and job candidates. Be sure to consider any state or local Ban the Box laws that may affect your church. Ban the Box laws generally prohibit inquiring about a job candidate’s history of arrest or convictions on a job application and may also impact when your church can perform a background check.
  • Provide the appropriate disclosure forms as required by federal, state, and local laws. You may need separate federal and state disclosure forms.
  • Obtain the job candidate or volunteer’s written authorization to perform a background check, as required by the FCRA, and provide the form “A Summary of Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”
  • Follow federal, state, and local guidelines throughout the process, including when evaluating the results of a background check. In most cases, volunteers are not legally considered employees. However, legal guidance on whether the FCRA, EEOC guidelines, and state and local Ban the Box laws apply to volunteers hasn’t been clearcut. To play it safe, consider following the same legal guidelines for volunteers that you do for candidates. This may help protect your church from liability, and also help you recruit a more diverse group of volunteers.

Get a church background check from Checkr

Performing background checks for job candidates and volunteers can help safeguard your church from legal liability, enhance your organization’s reputation in the community, and protect church members and the public from potential harm. But churches operating with tight budgets and lean staff often lack the time and expertise required to conduct ministry background checks, review the results, and keep up with ever-changing employment laws. Working with an experienced CRA, like Checkr, can save you time, money, and effort.

Checkr provides the comprehensive background screenings religious organizations need, from criminal background checks to reference checks and more. Our modern platform delivers fast, accurate results, while volunteers and candidates will also appreciate our easy-to-use, mobile-optimized candidate portal. With Checkr, you can spend less time dealing with paperwork and more time ministering to your congregation. Get started today.

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The resources and information provided here are for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Always consult your own counsel for up-to-date legal advice and guidance related to your practices, needs, and compliance with applicable laws.

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About the author

Karen Axelton writes about business topics and best practices. She has written hundreds of articles on business subjects, including background screening, hiring and employment trends, human resource management, and the use of technology in the workplace. Her work includes educational articles, e-books, white papers, and case studies.

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