Everyone has a responsibility to keep its workers, children, youth, and vulnerable adults, safe. Workplace health, safety, and security are expected in our congregations and in our expressions of worship, witness, and mission. At the 221st General Assembly held June 14-21 in Detroit, a Commissioner's Resolution was heard that pointed to deficiencies in our current reference check system when pastors change calls, moving from one church to another. Though it deservedly was referred to the Office of General Assembly to recommended action to the 222nd GA in 2016, the Assembly chose not to take any interim steps. There is a huge opportunity to embrace for the Presbyterian Church, if not all religious organizations in North America, to take workplace and employment reference checks seriously. Its past time for us to do all we can to recruit and retain healthy ministers and ensure better matched calls. Our communities deserve it.
I was asked to offer comments to the Commissioner's Resolution prior to the Assembly and I hope the following based on that earlier guidance is useful to mid councils and congregations who expect the very best candidates to be considered for pastoral leadership, now. This is important.
I studied the proposed Commissioner's Resolution and recognize the pain that must have been part of its origins. I agree with the substance of the resolution that standards for reference checks and seeking the practice of full disclosure on all candidates seeking calls would be wise.
I give reference checks routinely in my work as a mid council leader. I have developed a practice of inquiry that I use when in conversation with a colleague about the suitability of a candidate for a particular call. I want to honor both the candidate's uniqueness and their privacy while also honoring the church's expectation for full and complete information. The objective is to provide an honest, accurate, and fair assessment so that the calling team has the right information at the right time of decision. (See my recent blog, Do You Measure Up? on making better health decisions). Healthy systems, like congregations, councils, and denominations, stay healthy when open and clear information is made available which is appropriate, accurate, and responsibly offered.
When I seek a reference check from a colleague during a congregation's search process, I ask: "Are there any behaviors, addictions, or circumstances in this candidate's personal or professional life experience that would materially impact his/her capacity to serve in this new position?"
If their response is hesitant, incomplete, or they respond (as an example), "Yes, I am aware of impairments that might materially impact their capacity," I thank them for expressing their judgement and I move on to another candidate. I do not want nor need to know the details, and I trust the veracity of the colleague to offer a full and complete disclosure.
I also use the same protocol when I interview the candidates themselves, asking them directly in conversation, "Are there any behaviors, addictions, or circumstances in your personal or professional life experience that would materially impact your capacity to serve in this new position?"
If their response is hesitant, incomplete, or "Yes," I suggest they are welcome to re-engage in this particular call process after addressing those impairments, but I could not recommend them for any position with this disclosure. I do not need to know the details, and I trust their self-assessment to offer full and complete disclosure.
What the Commissioner's Resolution Could Achieve: The Commissioner's Resolution would seek to establish this kind of clearance protocol that is it mandated in our work, which would be useful to the church art large.
What the Commissioner's Resolution Misses: The Commissioner's Resolution assumed that presbytery leaders always have full and complete knowledge of every candidate for whom they are asked to provide a reference check for. This is not a reasonable expectation. I have personally experienced the deficiencies of the reference check system due to a lack of knowledge, not a lack of willingness, to provide a full and complete disclosure.
Any future recommendation studied by the church should focus on the information gap, not the implied assumption of intentional withholding of information, though unfortunately and sadly this willful non-disclosure does occur from time to time. Withholding pertinent information is unacceptable behavior. As author Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminds his readers, "If you see fraud and don't shout fraud, you are a fraud."
We must recognize that presbytery leaders only know what they know. And while we must expect ethical compliance with reference check inquiries, it is entirely plausible that a presbytery leader offering an honest reference check could report that there are no impairments to the candidate's capacity, based on the limited scope of the presbytery leader's knowledge of a particular candidate (See recent blog, Scope Your Mission.) Just because a national protocol is in place does not reliably or consistently flag dangerous or impaired individuals from serving. We can do better.
Addressing A Larger Opportunity: National Candidate Screening
The reference check deficiencies and need for a mandated standardized reference check protocols are only one small component to a larger opportunity. We should also mandate complete criminal background, child abuse clearance, and state police screening be completed and reported on every candidate considered by our churches prior to the stated clerk attestation and circulation in the Church Leadership Connection call system.
Too many times, the criminal background, child abuse, and state police screening required by most mid councils are only done sporadically, and they only capture persons already near-employed (final candidate in a search process or all-but-installed), or often these checks are in place after the fact as if the full criminal reference check, child abuse clearance, and state police screening is a formality and by implication, unimportant.
I have been exploring the possibility of how a broader collaboration across the church could develop a national contract with one or more service providers who would manage the processing of highly reliable and verifiable criminal background, child abuse clearance, and state police screening. SafeGatherings is an excellent example of a service provider that understands the need but has also developed a cost-effective package that address the opportunity. I have spoken to folks at SafeGathering and I am really impressed not only with their clearance system competencies, but their commitment to serve the Church.
By requiring compliance and clearance for our candidates, a higher standard would benefit everyone, including the candidates themselves. For those who should address severe impairments, for example, a thorough screening process could be just the stimulus to seek appropriate resources to attain greater wellness. But this screening would not just be for candidates looking for work. It would also include, for example, mission co-workers, support staff, and congregational volunteers who work with youth and children. As sought in the Commissioner's Resolution, "Because of the human and financials costs in both predatory behavior and investigating allegations related to the behavior, it is imperative that there be trust between mid-councils." A national clearance contract would help achieve this goal.
If a national compliance screening was in place, presbytery leader reference checks (ofter referred to in the Presbyterian Church as the EP-EP reference check, would be supplemental, and not the primary way the whole system protects itself from impaired or dangerous persons. By allowing the EP-EP exchange of direct knowledge to focus on the suitability of the candidate/position match, the matching process gains the importance it deserves. The improved wellness and effectiveness of both congregation and pastor would also benefit the community at large, since persons offering worship, witness, and mission in the name of Jesus Christ are more consistently healthy and well.
By mandating a national process for criminal background, child abuse and state police screening, with a protocol for presbytery leader reference checks, the church will be led by healthier and more trusted persons in better matched calls. This is an urgent opportunity to demonstrate God's love. What will you do to help?
Good leaders cultivate honest speech; they love advisors who tell them the truth (Proverbs 16:13, The Message).