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Predator-Proof Your Flock

Jim Wideman

7 Ways to Stop a Predator

Here are the precautionary measures I still use today to protect our children and our church from falling prey to offenders.

1. Set high qualification standards. You can always settle for less. In desperation, we often do. But if you want high-caliber volunteers, set your standards high. Today, I have the greatest group of volunteers I've ever had, but I also require more from my volunteers than I've ever required. All our volunteers must've made a faith commitment to Jesus. Our volunteers must be faithful, supportive church members in good standing. Our volunteers must live what they profess. Our volunteers must support our leadership and pastors.

We use a rigorous volunteer application to find out whether potential volunteers meet our high standards. I've found that the lengthy application itself has been an effective weeding- out tool because candidates who have something to hide won't apply at all. If someone won't complete a four-page application, believe me, they won't make a very good volunteer. Our comprehensive application also helps me match candidates' abilities and strengths to the most appropriate ministry.

2. Require references. We require three references, at least one of which must be a former pastor or ministry supervisor. We always contact references. We ask basic questions such as, "How long have you known the candidate?" and "What is the nature of your relationship?" We also ask whether the reference would have any reservations leaving his or her children with the candidate. I can't tell you how many times the reference the candidate used revealed a problem -- and sang like a bird. A pastoral reference once informed me that our potential volunteer had molested two children in his church. When I confronted the potential volunteer, he said he really didn't think I'd call his references. I've uncovered hundreds of child abusers, sexual deviants, and unqualified volunteers just from this one important step. Require references, and always make contact.

3. Require a criminal history investigation. This is the single most important screening process to have. A nationwide search is more effective than a state search, and your perfect scenario is to search in every state candidates have resided in. Ask for previous addresses so you can establish whether candidates are who they say they are. If someone withholds information about a previous address, that's a red flag.

Make sure that the background service you use also verifies Social Security information. I've discovered people who weren't who they said they were and people with multiple Social Security numbers. I've even discovered people who were a part of the witness protection program. If the mob is looking for a potential volunteer, I believe that's something I need to know. I don't want that person to be found in the middle of my preschool classroom. A great background check resource is Church Volunteer Central.

Have your service search the depart­ment of corrections records. I've found people who did time in prison, but because they were arrested by the county police, it didn't show up on their criminal history. I had an applicant who'd just been arrested and released for exposing himself to an undercover officer in a gay bar. Search the FBI's known sex offenders list. Several candidates have turned up with multiple outstanding warrants for abuse-related crimes.

Some churches say they can't spend the funds for criminal history investigations. You can't afford not to make this investment -- it's a lot cheaper than a lawsuit and broken lives. The negativity and damage an investigation or trial generates are more costly than your church could ever afford.

4. Ask lifestyle information. It's always amazed me that people will answer straightforward questions. Over the years people have said yes to questions such as, "Have you ever been accused of or convicted of spous­al abuse in any form?" "Have you ever been accused of or convicted of child abuse or a crime involving actual or attempted sexual molestation of a minor?" "Do you view pornography?"

I've had numerous people answer yes to these questions right on the application. Case closed.

5. Contact previous churches. Did this person leave the previous church in good graces? There have been volunteers I've disciplined or dismissed who went to serve in other churches. Those churches never contacted us about why the person left. I could've saved those churches some trouble if they'd only asked a few simple questions. I ask candidates to list all churches they've been a part of in the past five years, and I contact those churches. Sometimes you find people never attended a church they listed, they only wanted to impress you. But they never thought you'd check them out.

6. Conduct personal interviews. We meet with candidates, review their applications, and discuss their references. I ask key questions that help reveal the candidate's motives. It's vital to have someone who's spirit­ually keen and gifted in discernment present in the interview because our need for volunteers shouldn't over­ride spiritual discernment. I've learned that God's voice and the voice of wisdom are the same. Listen to your heart. Don't override the voice of wisdom.

7. Develop policies to keep children safe and adults free from accusations. Once volunteers are in place, they're assigned a master teacher to mentor them. All volunteers are required to know and follow our procedures. Two volunteers are always present with kids, never one alone. Teenagers and males aren't allowed to change diapers or take children to the restroom. We've also placed surveillance cameras in hallways and other key areas to keep our classrooms and facilities safe.

These seven steps have stopped more than 400 accused or convicted offenders from entering my ministries. Use them yourself to transform your church from an easy target to a fortress of safety and spiritual growth for children.


Jim Wideman is author of Volunteers That Stick (Group Publishing, Inc.). Visit his Web site at Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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