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Mastering Reference Checks for Churches
Mastering Reference Checks for Churches
Addressing 15 common questions to reduce ministry vulnerabilities.

The use of references has increased significantly in recent decades as employers seek to manage their risk of liability based on "negligent selection" of workers with insufficient assessment. Perhaps the most common reason that churches use references is to minimize the risk of liability for the sexual molestation of minors by church workers. If used correctly, reference checks can reduce the risk of child abuse, and a church's liability for incidents of abuse that occur.

A holistic screening practice typically includes a written application, a criminal background check, an interview, and reference checks. This article will respond to 15 common questions that arise when a church either solicits, or responds to, a reference.

1. What is a reference?

The word "reference" is commonly used to describe either a person providing an assessment of another's character or ability, or the assessment itself. To illustrate, assume that Tim worked in youth ministry at First Church, and is now applying for a similar position at Second Church. Second Church asks the pastor of First Church for an assessment of Tim's suitability and fitness. If the pastor responds with a written assessment, the pastor is a reference, and the assessment that he or she provides is also called a reference.

2. Why should a church obtain references on prospective employees and volunteers?

Churches are not "guarantors" of the safety of minors or anyone else who attends worship services or other church programs and activities. Legal responsibility for injuries that occur usually is based on negligence, meaning a failure to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances. A church can be liable for injuries to minors who participate in its activities, including sexual molestation, but only if the church fails to exercise reasonable care in the selection of workers or the supervision of programs and activities. There are many ways for a church to demonstrate the exercise of reasonable care, including written applications for all employees and volunteers who will work with minors, an interview, a criminal records check, and reference checks.

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