Recent statistics suggest that criminal background checks are a must for every children's and youth worker in every Southern Baptist church. And experts echo the warning.
At the same time, the results of theological education programs in two state prison systems serve as a reminder that the Gospel transforms lives and renders many former criminals fit for Christian service.
LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention teamed up last year with Backgroundchecks.com to offer discounted background checks to ministries around the nation. Since then, of the 450 churches that requested background checks, one in seven applicants for ministry positions were found to have a criminal history that may have disqualified them from volunteering or working in a particular role in a church. Out of more than five thousand background checks performed, eighty uncovered serious felony offenses, such as sexual battery against a child under age 16, felony larceny, and first degree rape. More than six hundred turned up other potentially disqualifying offenses such as driving while intoxicated, possession of illegal drugs, and battery/assault.
Bob Perkins, chief of campus police at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, and a veteran law enforcement official, said that while hidden criminal pasts may be less common in the church than the business world, all prior offenses should raise concern regarding potential ministry workers.
"We believe that background investigations, both electronic and standard (such as checking references), should be conducted on all paid employees, staff, and volunteers. This is just a good practice that could prevent a problem," he said, adding, however, that background checks cannot catch all would-be criminals.
Congregations that fail to conduct background checks may be liable to lawsuits if criminals sneak into ministry positions and subsequently victimize church goers, Perkins noted.
"We know from experience in law enforcement, history within different denominations, and court cases we read that a small percentage of criminals gravitate to our churches and schools with criminal records that could have been discovered," he said. "Then, when these persons commit another act within our walls, this often becomes a liability issue that leads to civil action against our churches."
It is possible to use ex-convicts in ministry, according to Perkins, but they must first demonstrate that Christ has indeed changed their lives. Churches must exercise special care not to allow sex offenders to work with children and youth or to be alone with anyone in a ministry setting, he said.
"We believe that the Scriptures teach us to openly accept and love everyone," he said. "This includes those with a criminal past. Our staff, professionally and spiritually, should work within our churches to allow such a person to do God's work [within certain guidelines]."
Still, allowing criminals to serve in ministry "should be a mentorship type ministry where those with a criminal past, but now having a servant's heart, work alongside other church leadership," he said. "What better example can we be to others than to welcome those with a troubled past to help within our walls in Christian fellowship and love?"
Despite the great dangers of allowing ex-criminals to serve in ministry work, Chris Buckhalter is one example of an ex-convict with a successful ministry. While serving two concurrent twenty-year sentences for manslaughter and aggravated assault in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in Christian ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's extension center at the prison. Released in November 2008, he speaks to children about avoiding the sins he committed.
And Buckhalter is just one of many. New Orleans Seminary has been providing theological education to prison inmates in Louisiana and Mississippi since 1995 and has seen hundreds of criminals transformed by the Gospel. The inmates can earn both associate's and bachelor's degrees through the seminary's undergraduate school, Leavell College.
Many students in the program are serving life sentences and minister only inside the prison walls — yet with quantifiable fruit. The violence rate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, for example, dropped from 1,074 assaults in 1995 when the program began to sixty in 2006 out of more than 5,100 maximum security inmates.
Among the graduates who have been released, several are serving in pastoral ministry with great success, said John Robson, assistant professor of Christian ministries at New Orleans Seminary and higher education coordinator at Angola Prison for the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
"There's no rehabilitation separate of the Lord coming inside of a man and changing him from the inside," Robson said. "There's just no other way. I've seen all kinds of attempts at rehabilitation, and I am saying, they don't work. The God we serve is the only one that can change a man."
While graduates of the New Orleans prison extension programs would have criminal records on any background check, Robson said background checks have not stopped transformed graduates from serving Christ.
"I haven't heard of any of our guys having any problems with credibility with churches because they're obviously going to tell the churches," he said. "And many times they have contact with these churches before they get out. So there's nothing hidden. Consequently, there's no real problem in the ministry."
Johnny Bley, director of New Orleans Seminary's Parchman extension center, said seven men have earned degrees and subsequently been released. Two are pastors, one is a youth evangelist, and three others serve in volunteer capacities at a local church.
How a believer with a criminal past explains the results of a background check says a lot about his character, according to Bley.
"Background checks for our graduates would reveal their past, which none of them would deny," he said. "One of the most amazing things I've seen in fifteen years of prison ministry is that inmates who have made a true decision for Christ all admit their sins and criminal activity. On the flip side, those who haven't turned to Christ, the majority still try to lay the blame on … the police or their parents or the person sitting next to them.
"From what I've observed of those who have gotten out, none have had a problem being accepted into local churches. … These men are not afraid of a background check and their lifestyles will soon reveal to a local church the change Jesus has made in their lives."
Bley's advice to churches where an ex-convict wants to serve is to use wisdom and ease the person into ministry slowly with plenty of supervision. He recommends the same process for all ministry volunteers, whether they have a criminal record or not.
"One of the most important but most often overlooked processes in the early church is mentoring," he said. "Prospective deacons were to be tried and then let them serve. All volunteers should be tried before being given responsibilities in the church. Personally, I believe many of our churches are suffering the effects of volunteers who were never mentored and do not know how or even why they are doing what they do."
He also advises congregations to keep ex-convicts away from ministries where they could be tempted to repeat their crimes — even though they are new creations in Christ.
"Wisdom would teach me to use such a man after being mentored, trained, tried, but not use him in an area of ministry which might put him back into a situation where he might be tempted in the manner in which he failed in the past," Bley said.
For more information on background check services, go to www.LifeWayStores.com/backgroundchecks.
It is easy, and perhaps understandable, for churches to be wary of welcoming people with criminal backgrounds into their fellowships. However, we dare not forget Paul's instruction to the Corinthian church:
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God's kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God's kingdom. Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis added)
This passage clearly indicates that when the Gospel is at work in a church, and through it to the surrounding community, lives will be changed — dramatically. A healthy church will have members with sordid pasts. Of course appropriate safeguards must be in place, but how marvelous it would be if our churches saw a dramatic increase in members whose background checks revealed such things, but whose transformed lives revealed even more dramatically the power of the Gospel.