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Background Check Compliance – Complete Glossary for Churches

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Is your church implementing a background check policy for the first time? Or perhaps you already run background checks for key positions in your ministry but are looking to modernize your approach. Either way, we’ve got you covered.

As a leader of your community, it’s important to understand background checks, how they work, and how they’re impacted by consumer and employee protection regulations.

This glossary will review and define all of the most important terms you’ll encounter along the way, broken down into a few key categories.

Before getting started

This resource can serve as a handy reference for your ministry as you get started, but for a deeper dive into background checks and tips for implementing them at your church, explore the complete Beginner’s Guide to Background Checks for Churches.

chapter 1

What’s a background check?

A background check is a formal screening of a person’s information from both private and public sources.

The complete report generated by a background check consists of a bundle of individual searches of various data sources. These searches typically include:

  • Criminal records
  • Employment and education verification
  • Identity data
  • Other purpose-based data, like Motor Vehicle Record reports and credit reports

What’s the purpose of running a background check?

Organizations run background checks for the purpose of making responsible hiring, recruiting, lending, and other partnership decisions.

Background checks are not intended to be invasions of individuals’ privacy. Rather, they help organizations like businesses and churches protect against liability exposure and create safer environments in which to do business or serve their communities. The rights of individuals being screened during background checks are protected by various federal, state, and local laws.

Why do churches run background checks?

Churches run background checks when recruiting volunteers for unpaid positions and hiring for paid positions in their ministries.

Background checks should be treated as a standard part of any faith community’s safety practices. They’re especially important since churches frequently work with vulnerable populations of children and elderly community members.

Background checks play a key role in creating safe environments where everyone can enjoy and contribute to your community in positive and fulfilling ways.

What are the benefits of running background checks?

Aside from creating a safer, more fulfilling environment for your faith community, background checks bring several additional benefits.

When implemented as a cornerstone of your church’s safety practices, background checks show your community members that their safety is your top priority. This is particularly beneficial for your children’s ministry, as a solid screening process will inspire confidence among parents.

Taking a proactive approach to safety through background checks can also reduce your church’s liability insurance expenses. As you implement screening into your hiring and recruiting practices, contact your church’s insurance agent and their underwriting department to discuss a reduced premium on your policy.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

Checkr makes it easy to conduct and easily renew background checks at scale, giving you a solid foundation to build a safe and fulfilling environment. Learn about how we partnered with Rock Point Church to address their screening needs and simplify the entire background check process: Read the full case study here.

Additional Resource:
5 Frequently Asked Background Check Questions (and Their Answers)

chapter 2

Background check fundamentals

There are a number of foundational concepts to understand about background checks that will help your church better navigate its options when creating or updating its screening process.

Consumer reporting agency (CRA)

A consumer reporting agency (CRA) is an organization that is paid to regularly assemble and/or evaluate consumer information, including credit information, for the purpose of creating and providing consumer reports to third parties.

Consumer reports compile information from a range of sources including criminal records, education and employment information, borrowing and repayment histories, and more.

Credit reports are a type of consumer report that focuses primarily on credit account information, but consumer and credit reporting agencies are functionally synonymous terms.

Checkr is a consumer reporting agency and is a member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), the industry’s nationally-recognized accrediting organization.

Permissible purpose

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the primary federal law that regulates background checks, defines the specific reasons why an organization can request that a consumer reporting agency run a background check on an individual.

These reasons are called permissible purposes. The FCRA establishes that background checks and credit reports can be run:

  • In response to a court order
  • After receiving express permission from the consumer being screened
  • When requested by an individual or organization that intends to use the report to:
    • Make employment and volunteer recruitment decisions
    • Underwrite insurance for the consumer
    • Inform its credit transactions with the consumer
    • Determine the consumer’s eligibility to obtain a license
    • Assess credit and/or repayment risks
  • Fulfill any other legitimate business needs

As a church, your reasons for requesting background checks are likely very straightforward—screening background information of potential employees and volunteers. Nevertheless, it’s very important to work with an accredited consumer reporting agency that will not run reports unless you have clear permissible purposes for requesting them.

Public information sources

Consumer reporting agencies draw from a combination and public and private information sources to conduct background checks. Public information is publicly available through government offices at the federal, state, and local levels. Public sources of information commonly screened for background checks include:

  • Federal and local criminal courts
  • Federal and local civil courts
  • Sex offender registries
  • Domestic and international government lists, like Interpol and various terrorist lists.

The screening process for public information can vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, criminal court records at the county level are among the most useful sources for up-to-date information, but it may take up to several days for background checks that include county-level criminal searches to be completed and returned by the consumer reporting agency.

Private information sources

Private information sources are those that are unavailable to the general public, often because they are compiled and controlled by private organizations like credit reporting bureaus. Private sources of information commonly screened for background checks include:

  • Current or past employers
  • Educational institutions
  • Local motor vehicle departments
  • Credit bureaus
  • Verifications of employment and educational histories, identity searches, and credit checks rely heavily on private information sources.

Some of these searches are manual and can take longer than more straightforward database searches. However, screening private sources can also help to streamline the criminal search process by filling in the gaps in address records and identifying county court offices.

Additional resource:

A Quick Guide to Background Check Searches Adverse Action

Adverse action

In the context of employment, an adverse action is any action taken based on information in a background check that negatively affects an individual’s employment status.

This usually means rejection of a candidate, but adverse actions can also occur when employers deny promotions or transfers to employees based on information in a background check.

When you choose to reject a candidate based on a background check, the FCRA requires that you follow specific steps to maintain transparency and respect the rights of the individual. We’ll cover these steps in the next section of the glossary.

Your church must comply with the FCRA and follow its adverse action reporting process when conducting background checks on employees or candidates for paid positions. For volunteers, the applicability of these rules is less well-defined.

However, there’s no reason you shouldn’t demonstrate respect and fairness by following the standardized FCRA adverse action reporting process for your church’s volunteers.

Additional resource:

The Basics of Adverse Action

chapter 3

The steps of a background check

Since background checks screen the personal information of individuals and inform consequential decisions, it’s important that they follow a specific series of steps laid out by regulators. Let’s review the standard steps of the background check process.

Background check disclosures and

Before ordering a background check on an individual, organizations must provide two things: First, a written disclosure notifying the individual of the intent to run a background check, and second, an authorization form to secure the individual’s permission to run the background check.

The FCRA requires that individuals be notified of background checks that may be conducted on them and be given the opportunity to refuse by not signing the authorization form. A signed authorization form serves as documentation of your permissible purpose to run the background check.

Remember that it is illegal to run a background check without permissible purpose and the express authorization of the individual being screened.

Important note

Disclosures and authorizations must be fully separate documents with no other information attached. Many organizations have experienced costly lawsuits as a result of including waivers and other legal information on these documents. The FCRA dictates (and federal courts have upheld) that disclosures and authorizations must be “clear and conspicuous” to prevent organizations from obfuscating the fact they plan to run a background check.

Individualized assessment

If you run a background check on a candidate and see past criminal offenses, you can consider the full context of those records by conducting an individualized assessment. These are most frequently encountered in the context of hiring, but they’re an important and useful part of the standard background check process in any situation.

For churches using background checks to screen volunteers rather than job candidates, individualized assessments are still considered best practice and will help you further determine a person’s suitability for any role in your ministry.

Specifically in the context of employment decisions, individualized assessments are required in many states and cities that have instituted fair hiring laws. In these cases, assessments must be completed prior to taking any adverse action as a result
of a background check. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also provides concrete consideration guidelines that many of these state and local laws are built upon.

Even if not required, organizations are still encouraged to create their own individualized assessment processes that consider the nature of an offense, how long ago it occurred, and its relevance to the opportunity in question. It’s recommended that your church define the specific offenses and factors that will disqualify candidates from unpaid and paid positions alike.

Additional resource:

Individualized Assessment – Making Hiring Decisions When Reviewing Adverse Information

Pre-adverse action notice

If you completed an individualized assessment and choose to reject an applicant based on information found in a background report, you’ll need to follow specific steps outlined in the FCRA to execute the adverse action.

The first step is issuing a pre-adverse action notice. This is a message that informs the individual that you may not move forward with the opportunity based on information in the background report. The purpose of this notice is to give the candidate an opportunity to respond. In many jurisdictions, you’re required to specify the information that is motivating the adverse action.

By law, pre-adverse action notices must include a copy of the background report and a copy of the FCRA’s “A Summary of Your Rights Under the FCRA.” Some jurisdictions have additional requirements for attachments that should be included.

Waiting period

After issuing a pre-adverse action notice, you’ll next need to let a reasonable amount of time pass before taking the official adverse action. This is called the waiting period, a time in which you can continue considering the applicant, and the applicant can respond or dispute the report.

Waiting periods are required under the FCRA, but it doesn’t strictly define them. Seven days is common practice, but some cities have established their own specific requirements. It’s the employer’s responsibility to research and understand these regulations as needed.

Post-adverse action notice

If at the end of the waiting period (and any time needed to resolve formal report disputes) you still determine that it’s appropriate to move forward with the adverse action, you’ll next need to issue a post-adverse action notice.

This is the official notice that an adverse action was taken as a result of information included in a background report. It should include the following elements:

  • The name and contact information of the consumer reporting agency that conducted the background check
  • A statement advising the candidate that the reporting agency did not make the adverse decision and so cannot explain why it was made
  • A notification that the candidate is entitled to receive a free copy of the background check or consumer report within 60 days

Many of the concepts and requirements described above are derived from specific regulations. These laws define how background checks can be used and how consumers’ and candidates’ rights should be protected during the process.

We’ll review three legal concepts that play important roles in background check compliance.

chapter 4

Legal background and laws to understand

How do they relate to church volunteers?

First, some context.

These rules directly apply to how your church 1) conducts background checks on individuals being considered for paid or unpaid positions, and 2) engages with its paid employees.

As a nonprofit, your church likely engages primarily with volunteers. Your volunteer background check processes must comply with relevant regulations, but broader employment regulations typically do not apply to volunteers.

However, the standards of privacy, safety, and fairness laid out in these laws and legal concepts should be considered best practice even when they’re not legally required.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

The Fair Credit Reporting Act was enacted in 1970 and has been regularly updated since then. It’s a federal law that governs how organizations should order and use information included in background checks, consumer reports, and credit reports. It’s enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The FCRA is intended to ensure accuracy, fairness, and the privacy of consumers’ personal information during the background check process. It lays out specific steps and rules for organizations conducting background checks, and it gives individuals the right to dispute reports.

To comply with the FCRA, your church must follow these rules:

  • Provide written background check disclosures to individuals and obtain their express consent before requesting a report
  • Share any information that the individual requests about the background check
  • Review the results and provide the individual with a copy of the report
  • Document and follow an adverse action process when applicable, consisting of a pre-adverse action notice, waiting period, and post-adverse action notice

These rules apply to all background checks you run, regardless of whether the position in question is paid or unpaid.

Additional resource: – Fair Credit Reporting Act

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was founded in 1965 as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC enforces and administers civil rights laws that protect employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, and other protected statuses.

Since background checks are frequently used to make employment decisions in which bias can inadvertently factor in, the EEOC’s governance plays a role in guiding how they can and cannot be used. Nondiscrimination laws primarily impact the individualized assessment process, the step of carefully considering the relevance of a candidate’s criminal history before making an employment decision.

The EEOC does not directly regulate or require individualized assessments nationwide, but conducting an assessment does help prevent employers from violating other statutes that the EEOC enforces.

However, nondiscrimination laws and guidelines are used as the basis of many state and local laws that do require employers to conduct individualized assessments, take additional steps, and/ or provide additional disclosures when using background checks. It’s the employer’s responsibility to understand their unique set of requirements in their jurisdiction and seek guidance from legal experts as needed.

These rules apply to how your church should engage with candidates for paid positions in your ministry. Individualized assessments are not required by law for unpaid positions, but it’s still best practice to use a consistent process and consider the broader context and relevance of an individual’s past criminal records.

Additional resource: – Background Checks

“Ban the Box” laws

States, cities, and counties in the United States have begun implementing ban-the-box laws and policies that prohibit employers from explicitly asking questions about criminal conviction histories on job applications. The “box” refers to a checkbox on a job application asking whether a candidate has a criminal conviction record.

These policies fit into the broader ongoing movement for fair chance hiring. Their purpose is to reduce the stigma and discrimination that candidates with criminal histories face when seeking employment, improve employment rates for workers with criminal histories, and reduce recidivism rates.

The ban-the-box landscape is currently varied:

  • 37 states, Washington D.C., and over 150 cities and counties have adopted fair chance policies for the public sector and government contractors.
  • 15 states and 22 cities and counties have extended their fair chance laws to cover private-sector employment, as well.

Additionally, the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act of 2019 went into effect at the national level in 2021. This law prohibits most federal agencies and contractors from asking candidates about criminal histories until after jobs have been conditionally offered to applicants.

When running background checks on candidates, your church must comply with any applicable ban-the-box laws in your jurisdiction when creating job applications.

Additional resource:

An Introduction to the FCRA, EEOC, and Ban-the-Box Policies

How is the compliance landscape changing?

The background check compliance landscape is constantly changing at the federal, state, and local levels.

While the three laws/legal concepts discussed above are well- established and unlikely to go away, it’s important to be aware of new developments that affect how your church can screen volunteers and job candidates.

For example, many states are now enacting laws that establish new requirements that churches must meet before allowing volunteers to engage with sensitive populations like children. For example, California’s AB 506 requires churches to train volunteers and mandatory reporters to recognize signs of abuse and neglect and to conduct regular fingerprint-based screens of volunteers and ministry employees.

Churches should always meet their compliance obligations. But it’s important to remember that fingerprint-based screens are not a substitute for more thorough foundational steps like traditional name-based background checks.

If your church is required to run fingerprint-based screens of volunteers and employees, we recommend that you also run name-based screenings to gain additional assurance for your sensitive hires.

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About Checkr

Checkr’s mission is to build a fairer future by improving understanding of the past. Our platform makes it easy for thousands of customers to hire millions of people every year at the speed of the gig economy. Using Checkr’s advanced background check technology, companies of all sizes can better understand the dynamics of the changing workforce, bring transparency and fairness to their hiring, and ultimately build a better future for workers.