Reference forms that an employee or volunteer applicant fills out are a vital part of the background check process for new ministry volunteers, especially children’s ministry volunteers. But often, reference forms don’t get to the nitty-gritty of what you truly need to know in order to keep your ministry and your church safe. Find out how thorough your church's reference form is by getting a copy of it, taking a few minutes to look it over, and then seeing if it asks the following:
- What is it like to work with the applicant? Hopefully, this reference is someone who’s worked with the applicant in some capacity in the past. No matter how desperate your ministry might be for children’s ministry volunteers, it won’t be worth it if this volunteer will be difficult to work with. On the flip side, if this applicant has excellent leadership capabilities and is deeply gifted for the position they’ve applied to work in, you’ll want to know in advance so you can watch for or consider future leadership positions for them.
- How is the applicant’s spiritual commitment? If the applicant is new to your church, or simply new to your ministry area, it’s important to get a read on the spiritual health and faith of the individual. The answer to this question will affect every other piece of the reference check. Don’t assume that every applicant has a deep and faithful commitment to Jesus Christ. Churches have a history of being targeted by predators simply looking for a trusting environment to enter into.
- What is the relationship between the reference and the applicant? A reference who barely knows the applicant is not a useful reference, so make sure you understand the depth and the breadth of the relationship between the reference and the applicant. Don't glean information from someone who’s only worked with the applicant once or twice. If this is the reference you’ve been connected with, it could be a red flag.
- Are there any reasons why the applicant should not volunteer in this capacity (or be given restricted access)? If the reference knows of any reason, such as a history of abuse or even something as seemingly small as a past accusation of inappropriate behavior, this is the place where the reference can speak freely and openly. Although this might seem like an obvious piece of information for the reference to inform you of, it’s the church’s responsibility to ask outright if there has ever been any inappropriate behavior. Don’t leave that up to the discretion of the person giving the reference. Especially in ministry settings, if a pastor or former leader is giving a reference, their desire will be, in most cases, to put the applicant in the best light possible. If the question isn’t asked outright, they might not feel comfortable disclosing information unsolicited.
- Is this position a good fit for the applicant? Regardless of the trustworthiness of your applicant, sometimes a position simply isn’t a good fit, and your reference might know this better than you do. Keep in mind—and let the reference know on the form—that not being suited for a particular role is no character flaw by itself. But the needs of the ministry to have gifted people in roles is a must. This is a simple question, but it will save both your church and the applicant a huge headache later on. If the reference suggests that this position is not a good fit, be sure to include space for an explanation of why and a suggestion, if any, of what other position(s) the applicant might be suited for.
- Are there any additional comments about the applicant? Providing space for extra information is important to the reference check process.
Don’t skimp on the questions you add to a reference check. When asked, Willow Creek Church’s Protection Ministry Staff Representative put it this way:
References are just one piece of the process, but taken in the context of the other pieces (application, background check, etc.), the information can be incredibly helpful to us. Some of the most helpful data that references can provide is information that contradicts information provided by the applicant.
It’s important to keep in mind the limits of reference forms and reference checks. Though a vital part of screening, they're insufficient when used as the only means of vetting an employee or volunteer applicant, says Richard Hammar. Professional references are much more reliable, and personal references can leave gaps about the applicant for an organization. Make sure other measures help provide a comprehensive screening program for your ministry.
Go deeper in mastering reference checks in the May/June 2015 feature article of Church Law & Tax Report.
If you're vetting a volunteer or employee through a background check, the article “Answering Church Leaders’ Common Questions about Background Checks” can help.
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