Friday, February 8, 2019

The Background Check

For the last fifteen years, I've been a pastor.  A Presbyterian, as it happens.

During that time, in my corner of the Christian faith, I've been taught over and over again about the importance of maintaining the integrity of our churches.  Meaning, church needs to be a place where Jesus is authentically followed.

Spiro Agnew?  Why?
And to do that, church needs to be a place where children and the spiritually/personally vulnerable are safe.  Meaning, you have no tolerance for predators.  Period.

My denomination takes that very seriously.  Individuals who want to be pastors are vetted extensively, including psych profiles and background checks.   Once we become pastors, my Presbytery requires me to go through a regular training to insure that I'm spiritually and personally aware of the real danger of abuse and/or "boundary violations" in the church.

Churches are required to have protection policies, and background checks on employees who interact with children.  We take all of this seriously, because malfeasance has costs.

And sure, it's kind of an intrusion.  And a pain in the butt.  After having gone through it five times, that training seems quite familiar now.  But that doesn't matter.  It's important to preserve the integrity of who we are.  And to keep us alert for times when people try to take advantage or work around a system that is necessary for the integrity of the church.

Here's an example of how that might work.  Let's say I had an opening for a youth pastor position.   One of my candidates for that position was a person who claimed a "heart for the young people."  They knew the lingo, and they were filled with the Spirit, and were all about "disrupting" the boring old ways of being church and "transgressing" against rigid, dull norms.  They seemed a little wild.  "Edgy."  You know, the squiggly sort of soul that many adolescent humans parse as "authentic."

But when it came time for the background check, they balked.  First, with excuses about why they couldn't give the information we needed to run the check right now. 

And then, after I pressed, that candidate'd question the whole idea of doing a background check.  Because Jesus was calling them to ministry.  Because this was just a stupid, oppressive rule.  Because really, it's all about the Holy Spirit.  And if God is calling them to ministry, who am I to demand that they prove they don't have an active restraining order keeping them 1000 yards from elementary schools?

What should you do with such a candidate for an important church position?

I pitched the question to the hive mind of my social media feeds, which are filled with pastors and Christian educators and other Jesus folk: 

Should I hire someone who refused to cooperate with a background check as a youth pastor?

From pastors and Christian educators, the answer, almost all the same.  Some said "No."  Others said "Hell no."  Some said so using memes, because many of my pastor friends are hipper than I.

One even asked, hey, why are you even asking this question?  Because we all know the answer, and you know the answer.

A church should never, ever, ever hire a person who tries to evade a safeguard.

So here's the principle, learned by the church at a terrible cost:  If you have put something into place to prevent a predator from entering a position of trust and power, people who try to circumvent that barrier are not being "creatively transgressive."  They're not being "disruptive leaders."  

What they are, more likely than not, are predators.  

Which gets me, finally, to the point of this little exercise, and the reason why there's that incongruous picture of Spiro Agnew at the beginning of this  post.

Agnew, as history teaches, was Nixon's first Vice President.  He was forced to resign the office in 1973 after a corruption investigation revealed he'd been taking kickbacks from government contractors.  It's an interesting, interesting chapter in America's history, one that you can read about by following this link.

It's bizarrely familiar, with so many echoes of our current political climate.

So here's the thing.  After Agnew's ignominious departure, politicians introduced...informally...a way to show the world that they were not corrupt and engaged in financially questionable practices.

They released their tax returns.  

It was a show of accountability.  It was a mark that they were willing to submit themselves to scrutiny.  It was a sign that they were trustworthy, not corrupt or self-dealing or the agents of foreign influence.

For those seeking political power, that was not a trivial thing.  It was a way of saying they understood that corruption was a problem worth rooting out, and that barriers preventing politicians from grifting the system needed to be in place.

Which makes complete sense.  Like the background checks on youth pastors.  Or the checks on pastors, who'll be privy to secrets and intimate knowledge of their congregants at their most vulnerable.

Whenever people want positions of power, you do not let them circumvent safeguards.

Because whenever they insist they're above such things, or find reasons to stall or evade, it means something.

This is a thing that churches know.

But clearly something "Christian" America still needs to work on.