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There’s More to Applicants Than What You See

Vetting Applicants More Deeply

application document with pen on top of paper

Based on the Safety Member Certification training modules “Safety Team Fundamentals” and “Protecting Children from Abuse”[1]

From the Bible

"Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business" (Acts 6:3).

And let these also first be proved [tested]; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless (1 Timothy 3:10).


In the Sheepdog Church Security article published on April 22, 2024, "Lessen Legal Liabilities: Preventing Lawsuits and Criminal Charges" ("Lawsuit Prevention: Legal Strategies for Churches" in Safety Ministry Training | Sheepdog Articles), some of the lawsuits against churches were based on persons responsible for the incidents - especially child abuse - being allowed to work in the churches. A later article, "The Judas Syndrome: Theft in the Church," addressed embezzlement. Either the persons should not have been in those positions in the first place or they were not set down when problems arose.[2][3][4][5]

Another position with the potential for liability is vehicle driver. This is not always a permanent position, since a driver may be needed for one event. Even then, we must screen both regular and stand-by drivers.

On the Web

Reidsville, North Carolina, October 5, 2023 - The driver of a church van from Virginia, did not yield to oncoming traffic while turning left into the parking lot of a church in Reidsville. This caused a collision involving five vehicles. Thirteen persons were injured. Fortunately none of the injuries was life-threatening. The van driver did not have a driver's license. Besides failure to yield and being unlicensed, there was also a child restraint violation.[6]

Lake County, Florida, January 2014 - The Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) was found liable in a lawsuit by the family of a boy who had been molested by a planting pastor. The allegation was that the FBC failed to consult with those churches where the pastor had previously worked before ordaining him as a church planter. It turned out that those churches knew of concerning behaviors.[7][8]

Tonawanda, New York, February 11, 2024 - A woman accused of embezzling over $450,000 from a church had served prison time for previous church thefts. She used a different last name on the application. Vetting of the applicant did not include an alias search.[9]

Boston, Massachusetts, Summer 1983 - A former employee of a college applied for a job as a security guard. The business called the college for a reference. The person at the college taking the call indicated that the former employee was likely dishonest. This referred to a paycheck issued to him by mistake which he did not return. The former college employee did not get the security job. He sued the college, and the jury found for him. The Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the decision.[10][11]

Spotting Hidden Reefs

Reefs in tropical waters are notorious for shipwrecks. Often they are close enough to the surface to be struck by a ship's hull while deep enough to not be seen in time. Most ships are now equipped with sonar and other technology to spot a reef.

When evaluating a candidate for a position in the church (including volunteers), those deciding whom to hire or appoint need to know whether there is any good reason to not hire that person for that task. Three areas of special concern are protecting vulnerable persons (especially children and youths) from abuse, preventing embezzlement, and vehicle safety. How can we reasonably know that someone is a safe choice for the position? The process of determining whether an individual is capable, reliable, and safe is vetting (screening).

The news stories above illustrate the hazards of selecting an unqualified driver, a bookkeeper with a history of theft, and a minister who should not be trusted with children and youth. Also included is the peril of not being careful in how the reference for a former employee is worded.

As with ships finding reefs, technology now affords a better look at candidates for positions in the church. This technology includes electronic communications, online databases, and electronic file storage. Added to this are organizations and government agencies that collect and post information and research individual profiles.

Looking Deep Enough

The process of screening someone to work in the church, whether as a pastor, staff member, or volunteer, begins with the application. This is followed by background and reference checks.


Have everyone who is recruited for a role or who asks to serve fill out an application. This includes general and role-specific applications.

The general application includes, of course, name, address, contact information, etc. It also includes current and previous employment (including volunteer work), schools attended, and churches attended (including any work done in the church).

A role-specific application can be in addition to the general application or combined with it.

Background Checks

Each applicant should sign a Background Check Permission Form. Employers are required to have the applicant's permission before conducting a background check. These checks are education, employment, criminal, and financial.

This is primarily a criminal background check. If you apply for work in a school, a prison, or some other government jobs, you will most likely be fingerprinted. This is a way to be sure that a criminal background check is for the person filling out the application, not just someone else with the same or a similar name. It is also a way to get around aliases. Women who are or have been married may be known by more than one last name, and some men will assume another last name, too, often by using their middle name instead.

A criminal background check has one major limitation: it only lists convictions and time served. Sex offender registries also have similar limitations. Here arrest records may be revealing, since a plea deal could drop some of the charges. This often happens in sexual assault cases.

Education and employment checks first verify the training and experience which were cited on the application, and secondarily allow the church or school to determine whether they qualify the person for the considered position.

A financial background check should be done on an applicant for a financial position (one in which the person would have access to the church's finances), such as treasurer, bookkeeper, accountant, and accounts payable/receivable clerk. It should also be for the office manager, ushers, and security guards. Things to look for are bankruptcies, high debt, poor credit report, etc.

For vehicle drivers, the background check should include the candidate's driving record. This includes stand-by drivers who can fill in on short notice. Check for valid operator licenses and passenger endorsements. Also check for violations, such as speeding, other moving violations, DUI/OVI, suspended licenses, etc. Also check for driver insurance coverage.

Reference Checks

It was noted above that a criminal background check has its limitations. So do references. First, they are more time-consuming for a department head vetting a candidate. However, this process relies on cooperation at both ends. An accurate and candid reference will reveal things that never show in a criminal, education, employment, or financial background check. Let's take the first news story.[6] The entire point of the lawsuit was that the state denominational organization should have solicited and considered references from churches where the planting pastor candidate had served.

Media for references can include snail mail, emails, texting (only to set up a conversation), faxing, and phone calls.

Postal mail may provide more reliable documentation, including postmarks, but it requires more time, even when the initial request is made through live contact. A requested reference letter may be faxed or attached to an email. Another option available now is to send a fillable, signable, online PDF reference form. A written reference is preferred over an oral one, even when given over the phone. It is vital documentation in case of an incident or a complaint.

Reliability and Liability of References

References depend on both parties. The hiring organization has to ask for references - at least from the places they know about. On the other end, the past-experience organization should give a reference (preferably in writing) which is honest and candid.

For the referring party, there are two potential liabilities. On the one hand, if this party withholds information they definitely know, the receiving party places the subject person in the position, and trust is betrayed, victims may sue that party for not revealing the problems that led to the incident. This is a real hazard when the worker abuses a vulnerable person, such as a child or a developmentally-disabled adult. Depending on the case, there may be a "non-disclosure exemption," but if a positive recommendation is given while ignoring known problems, there may be no exemption.

On the other hand, with a reference that is unfavorable or has reservations, how it is given could lead to a defamation lawsuit. In this case, if the reference was given in good faith and was solely factual, then it should not be a problem. This is "qualified privilege." Also, job references are to be confidential.

In "St. Clair v. Trustees of Boston University," the person at the school giving the reference did not simply say that the erroneously-issued paycheck was not repaid, but characterized the former employee as having "a problem of dishonesty concerning money."[10][11]

In a minister-to-minister conversation, if people in the church were concerned by how the candidate related to children or youth, etc., or if a church van driver made passengers fearful by how he or she handled the road, it needs to be said, but be careful how you say it. Generally, a written response is better than oral, since you can un-say something before you send it.

First-Time Problems

For every person who steals, commits sexual abuse, or gets a reckless driving ticket, there is a first time. Sometimes we may be able to discern leading indicators and intervene with counseling and/or discipline with the possibility of nipping a problem in the bud. Often, however, the first incident is unforeseen and takes us by surprise. On the other hand, most of the time several incidents occur before a person is found out and their name goes on the record.

The first time is often not in the church or church-related, such as a teen boy molesting a classmate or pre-teen neighbor, or an adult finally giving in to a temptation. It may have been on-going, but the perpetrator finally got caught. We may or may not learn of it in news reports or from someone familiar with the situation. If it results in an arrest, an online site searching police reports for arrests may pick it up.

A good practice is to screen ALL the people who work or desire to work in the church.

Help in Vetting Applicants

If keeping all of this straight sounds like too much for you to handle, join the crowd, but there is help out there. Organizations exist to do background screenings of all kinds, and even some reference checks (mostly verifying education, employment, and addresses). However, the firms doing background checks are not all the same. Some are very superficial, not any better than what your team can do by itself. Then there are some who dig deeper. One such firm is Protect My Ministry (PMM), an affiliate of Sheepdog Church Security.[12]

Here's a brief overview of their services:

PMM also has other services:

Even with all this, the primary purpose of PMM remains protecting ministries from selecting abusers, thieves, and unsafe drivers as ministers, officials, staff, and volunteers.


For the safety of children, youth and vulnerable adults, of church finances, and of persons in church vehicles, screen all applicants for all positions, and use a thorough vetting service.

Focus on Training and Certification

All church safety team members should be trained and certified through Sheepdog Church Security's Safety Member Certification program. It has eight training modules. Two training formats are available: Online Events (live Zoom classes) and Self-Paced Training (individual online instruction). A student may take the full course in one format or a combination of the two. Here is the Online Events schedule for the rest of 2024:






Training Module


Mar 24

Sep 8

Nov 3

Safety Team Fundamentals


Apr 7

Sep 15

Nov 10

Active Shooter Response


Apr 14

Sep 22

Nov 17

Deescalating Disruptive Persons


Apr 21

Sep 29

Nov 24

Protecting Children from Abuse


Apr 28

Oct 6

Dec 15

Basic Use of Force Laws


May 5

Oct 13

Jan 5

Arson and Fire Safety


May 19

Oct 20

Jan 12

Storms and Disasters


Jun 2

Oct 27

Jan 19

Mass Trauma Emergencies

Learn more about church safety and security in the Sheepdog Articles on the Safety Ministry Training site. This includes our Weekly Articles, Church Security Guide articles, and Guest Articles.[9]


  1. Kris Moloney, "Safety Team Fundamentals" and "Protecting Children from Abuse," Certification, Sheepdog Church Security Academy, © 2021 [].
  2. WGV, "Lessen Legal Liabilities: Preventing Lawsuits and Criminal Charges," Sheepdog Church Security, April 22, 2024 [].
  3. WGV, "Lawsuit Prevention: Legal Strategies for Churches," Safety Ministry Training | Sheepdog Articles, April 22, 2024 [].
  4. Kris Moloney, et al, Security Articles, Safety Ministry Training, © 2024 [].
  5. WGV, "The Judas Syndrome: Theft in the Church," Sheepdog Church Security, April 22, 2024 [].
  6. Emily Mikkelsen, Brayden Stamps, and Sarah Winkelmann, "13 people taken to hospital after wreck involving church van in Rockingham County, troopers say," WGHP (Fox8), October 6, 2023 [].
  7. Raul Rivera, "Lawsuit Claims Church Ordained Wrong Person," StartCHURCH, February 16, 2017 [].
  8. Bob Allen, "Florida Baptists to appeal abuse award," Baptist News, January 21, 2014 [].
  9. Dan Herbeck and Jay Tokasz, "Woman accused of stealing $465K from church had served prison time after previous thefts," The Buffalo News, February 11, 2024 [].
  10. Richard R. Hammar. "Case Demonstrates Legal Risks in Providing Negative References to Other Employers," Church Law & Tax, November 1, 1988 [].
  11. "St. Clair v. Trustees of Boston University, 521 N.E.2d 1044 (Mass. App. 1988)," accessed May 7, 2024 at Case Law, V|lex, June 3, 1988 [].
  12. Sheepdog Church Security sign-up link, Protect My Ministry [].