About 600,000: That’s the number of prisoners reentering American communities each year. Whether you know an ex-offender personally or not, you are bound to encounter someone with a criminal background in your day-to-day life.
The stigma around individuals with criminal histories has made their reentry into society exponentially more difficult. Though employers are liable if they discriminate and choose not to hire an individual because of their criminal background, employers can still get away with that bias fairly easily.
“They do their background checks and see something they don’t like, and they say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry, we’re not hiring’ or ‘We found someone else who’s more appealing to us’ . . . They would never even say that it was because of [the background check] or to any degree something beyond that,” explains attorney and Church Law & Tax Editorial Advisor Midgett Parker.
Enter the local church, supposedly a warm space that welcomes all. But in reality, does it fully embrace and support those with criminal backgrounds? Christianity Today magazine’s September 2016 cover story would argue that is, unfortunately, not often the case. “The United States has more than 300,000 churches, meant to welcome, build, and sustain relationships—and there aren’t many groups that need that kind of relational support more than people who are released from jail,” writes Morgan Lee, CT’s associate digital media producer. Yet “[i]n spite of the dramatic growth of incarceration, ministries to those in and returning from prison remain a distinct minority of evangelical organizations.”
Craig DeRoche is senior vice president at Prison Fellowship, an organization that ministers to prisoners and their families. He wants to see the church culture around embracing ex-offenders change. “As Christians, we can’t exclude our faith from the reality of our culture. It will rob us of the opportunity to truly live as Christ wants us to live,” he says. “We can’t turn a blind eye and dismiss it anymore.”
One of the ways for churches to seize that opportunity is through hiring processes. “We need to hire people who have been incarcerated, people who are set out on a new path in their lives,” says DeRoche. “We want to see them live out their God-given potential, and that begins in the church.”
Though local churches seem to be a prime first place of employment for ex-prisoners as they re-enter society, there are inevitable risks involved either way. As Parker explains, “You don’t hire them, then you’re at risk. You do hire them, then you’re also at risk.”
How to Prevent and Protect
According to Parker, during the hiring process, sit down with your ex-offender candidates and do the following:
- Inquire. Ask them questions about their full histories and backgrounds.
- Verify. Go to the courthouse and check public records to verify what they have disclosed. Answer the following questions: What were the charges? What were they convicted for? How long were they in prison? Did they disclose everything?
- Document. Write those verified answers down. Keep a confidential personnel file for each candidate.
- Repeat. Every so often, go through the preceding steps and run checks on every staff member, those with or without a prior criminal record, because statuses have the potential to change over time.
Along with the steps outlined above, check for rehabilitation efforts (such as anger management counseling) and call their references. “The questions are: Are they truthful? [Or] are they trying to hide it?” Parker says. “If they’re hiding it, you should be more suspicious.”
Remember: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, has warned various organizations—including churches—that they face liability if they unlawfully discriminate against a people of a protected class (including race, gender, and criminal background). Should a church’s applicant be rejected because of their criminal history, the EEOC could bring legal action against the church.
Risks of Negligent Hiring and Selection
The church administrator’s responsibility is to ensure the safety of their congregations and their staff. If a crime were to occur, the church may be sued for risk of negligent hiring—thus, every church (like any other organization) should have knowledge of the backgrounds of their staff members prior to the start of any employment.
Yet churches have a unique advantage when it comes to hiring those with criminal records. “Churches, more than secular employers, have the ability to find out where the person is in their spiritual journey, and who they are today,” says DeRoche. “We’ve seen, here at Prison Fellowship, countless examples of folks who have had radical transformations in Christ. The church has the opportunity to evaluate where somebody is and take the responsible steps for our congregation, and the person who has the job, by not exposing them to temptation.”
The safest way to prevent this risk of negligent selection in job placement—which is “[o]ne of the most significant legal risks facing churches today,” according to a 2013 Church Law & Tax article—is to assign an ex-offender to a role or duty unrelated to their offense. “Don’t hire someone who has been convicted of sexual child abuse to lead a youth ministry, because it is related to the job,” Parker says. “You wouldn’t hire someone who has been convicted of financial fraud to be your bookkeeper.”
It is crucially important—and cannot be stressed enough—that churches should not put others or the church in danger by placing an ex-offender in a role where history has demonstrated bad judgment. Certain crimes, such as sexual crimes, will mean additional safeguards need to be in place in order for a person to serve safely—and resources like Reducing the Risk are key to implementing those safeguards.
After the Hire
Should a church choose to hire an ex-offender, here are the immediate steps Parker suggests churches take:
- Prepare. Just like any other new hire, prepare your staff for the incoming new hire. Cultivate a warm team community.
- Embrace. Mentor and provide abundant guidance for the individual.
- Train. Train current staff to embrace this new hire. “Let your staff know that they are coming back from a bad experience,” says Parker. “Train them to show respect, to be receptive and engaging, and to provide hope that there are opportunities for gainful employment in the church.”
- Create accountability. People can change, and churches should lead the charge in supporting stories of redemption. However, this doesn’t discount the need for additional safeguards and measures to be put in place. This will help not only to reduce the risk of lawsuits against the church, but it will also help protect churchgoers from unnecessary risks.
There is hope for ex-prisoners—and it is a responsibility of the church to equip and guide them to break through societal stigmas.
“Rather than telling other folks in our community what to do, we can start with ourselves,” says DeRoche. “Churches can unlock opportunities, and they can truly speak into the culture of their local community.”
Emily Lund is assistant editor for Church Law & Tax. Alexandria Kuo is the former Church Law & Tax editorial intern.