Background Checks for Churches and Religious Organizations

Background Checks for Churches and Religious Organizations

Historically, churches have been known as places of safety and sanctuary. When the Boston Globe exposed a widespread sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in 2002, that impression of safety and sanctuary began to shift. Between 2001 and 2010, the Holy See—the central governing unit of the Catholic Church—investigated sex abuse allegations involving 3,000 priests and dating back half a century. In 2004, a study conducted by the John Jay Report tabulated more than 11,000 allegations in the United States against 4,392 priests.

These numbers and the scandal at the root of them exposed the need for greater oversight in churches and religious organizations. They are part of the reason background checks have become more common in these organizations since. This white paper will look at the rise of background checks in churches and religious organizations and why these vetting measures are so important.

The Rise of Background Checks in Churches
At, we have seen the growth of background screenings for religious organizations firsthand. In 2008, we established a partnership with LifeWay Christian Resources. LifeWay is the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, a nonprofit that “reinvests income above operating expenses in mission work and other ministries around the world.” LifeWay provides resources to thousands of churches—including, for the past decade, background checks.

By 2010, less than two years after the partnership between LifeWay and had begun, LifeWay had conducted more than 11,000 checks for 900 churches. By 2013, LifeWay had tapped to conduct nearly 85,000 background checks for 5,000 churches. Today, a decade into the partnership, LifeWay and have helped more than 15,000 churches and religious organizations screen their employees and job candidates.

Over the years, LifeWay’s background checks have justified themselves by alerting churches and religious organizations to red flags. In 2010, 40 percent of the checks that LifeWay ran returned some sort of hit ranging from driving record infractions to criminal records. Twenty-one percent of the checks identified felony or misdemeanor convictions. At that point, LifeWay checks had flagged 600 felony convictions.

By 2013, the figures were even higher: 53 percent of LifeWay’s checks (accounting for almost 45,000 employees or candidates) had flagged an issue. 22.5 percent—or 19,202 checks—identified people with misdemeanor or felony convictions.

These numbers show why background checks in religious organizations are important. Not all the “issues” identified by LifeWay’s background checks would justify the firing of a church employee or the disqualification of a job applicant or volunteer. Traffic infractions and some minor misdemeanors are often not relevant to a church position. However, knowing about misdemeanors and felonies is a must for churches and religious organizations—especially since LifeWay’s stats prove a significant percentage of candidates in these organizations have criminal backgrounds.

Due to the LifeWay/ partnership, more churches than ever have easy access to background checks for their employees and volunteers.

Learn the reasons why screening at churches and religious organizations is important in our free white paper

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