The church personnel or pastor search committee is the first line of defense against sexual predators and others bent on causing harm being employed in a church setting.
Bad actors, including sexual predators, often intentionally target the church environment, seeing a grace-filled community as a soft target. Such persons have developed an ability to hide their true natures and past activities. Their success lies in deceit, often using a combination of truth and incomplete facts to mislead. The job of the search committee is to wade through the truth in a candidate’s resume to find the unstated things the candidate does not wish to be exposed.
Inadequate review and inquiry concerning the work history of an applicant may be the single most frequent cause of “employer’s remorse.” Those responsible for reviewing applicants should take care to address each of the areas listed in this article.
Failure to give adequate attention to a job candidate’s work history sets up a church to experience just that—a failure.
Avoid Emotional or Perceptual Bias
Many folks believe they can “tell just by looking” or that they “know quality when they see it.”
If you are assigned to review a candidate for employment, you should be wary of the natural inclination to seek corroboration of perceptions and opinions you already possess. If you, as a personnel committee member, find a candidate particularly magnetic or appealing, you may unconsciously choose not to examine the background of that candidate as thoroughly as you might others.
Consciously reversing that bias is helpful when examining background information. In other words, look for things that disprove the apparent worthiness of a candidate. What is not looked for will not be found. Yielding to such biases sets up the conditions for an unworthy candidate to slip through.
Thoroughly Investigate Previous Employment
Conducting a thorough investigation of an applicant’s past employment history is as important, if not more important, than other elements involved in examining the worthiness of a prospective employee.
The natural tendency of reviewers is to ascertain whether the prior employments have provided the right type of experience or employment pedigree to equip the candidate for the job. If the experience and places of prior service seem to be adequate, reviewers sometimes go straight to the in-person interview stage, which may not be wise.
A search committee should never depend solely on an applicant’s explanation about reasons for leaving employment and accepting short-term employment between jobs. The committee should call previous places of employment and inquire further.
Examine Employment Gaps
When it comes to employment gaps or rounded numbers in employment history—periods of time for which no employment is shown on a resume—reviewers should not concentrate only on what is stated, but also what is unstated.
If there are employment gaps, or years of previous employment are listed in rounded numbers, the candidate should be asked for inclusive dates and the cause for any gaps in employment. Even if the candidate gives a reasonable answer, it is always a good practice to probe a bit. For instance, if the candidate says, “I went back to school during those months,” the interviewer should follow up by asking whether he also had a part-time job, or how she supported herself during that time, or whether they volunteered in ministry. Those answers may yield important information.
Check References and Expand the Search
Church committees should check the references that are listed by the applicant. We may inaccurately assume that ministers who have worked at successful churches or for godly ministries are themselves successful and godly, and any church or person they list as a reference will give them a good report. Those things are very often true—but not always.
On occasion a member of a search committee will contact a listed reference who expresses surprise that his or her name was listed on an individual’s resume. Occasionally, references will even distance themselves from the candidate, sending signals with phrases such as “I really can’t discuss a previous employee’s history.” In such instances, I suggest replying, “I understand you may not want to discuss any specific details with me. All I want to know is, would you hire them again?”
If there is any hesitation, or if a reference answers that question with an outright “no,” it is time to move to another candidate.
Search committees should not limit themselves to the references given by the applicant on his or her resume. A good step to take is to ask each listed reference to suggest two or three other individuals who know the candidate. Ranging out more widely to check with members of a congregation or other staffers at the applicant’s former ministry will often produce additional and very useful information and may even raise serious concerns about the suitability of the candidate.
Review the Whole Person
Making sure the applicant’s resume includes relevant work history is not where the task of determining a candidate’s qualifications ends—it is where it begins.
As a committee begins to settle on a particular candidate, it should solicit permission to conduct background, criminal history, and credit checks. These are good-faith efforts to examine a wider set of competencies of a candidate. If the candidate has anything to hide, this is often the place where they become uncooperative or evasive. Resistance to grant permission for these routine checks should end the process, no matter how qualified the candidate may otherwise appear to be.
Interview the Spouse
How things are at home will affect how things are at work, and this is especially true in ministry. Family and ministry are areas especially targeted by the devil, and search committees need to understand the family dynamic as well as the health of the relationships any applicant has left behind in former ministry positions. Sexual predators may go undetected in the darkness of deceit for many years, but spouses are often the first to be aware that things are not right. When search committees include interviews with a spouse, it is often the case that responses, posture, and other indications of hidden issues will be telegraphed.
Following these procedures will not prevent every situation of abuse or crime. Sexual abuse is not a crime of passion, but one of premeditation, calculation, and manipulation. There may be no initial outcry, no perception of wrongdoing by proximate coworkers, and lengthy periods before discovery of the crime is made and during which many people suffer.
We must strive at the outset—at the point of employment—to exercise our best efforts of investigative discovery and other preventative measures. These efforts are necessary to make our churches not only more fruitful, but also as safe and secure as we can possibly make them.
D. August Boto is interim president of the SBC Executive Committee and executive vice president for Convention policy. He is a member of Forest Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.