Another scandal hit the news recently about some pastors resigning over inappropriate sexual and abusive behavior in the church. I’ll spare you the lurid details. It makes me angry when these things happen. Not just because of the betrayal of trust and the often predatory mentality of the pastors who cross that line (they prey on the vulnerable), but because such defrocked pastors too often finagle a return to full-time paid ministry as a pastor. When that happens, it raises serious questions about the hiring policies of some churches. It also makes me question whether the leadership at churches that hire defrocked pastors has a misguided interpretation of forgiveness and restoration so off the rails it puts their congregation at risk.
Here is a valuable tip for all Christians in a denominational or independent church: If your church leaders hire a pastor without doing a thorough background check (including reference checks), or they decide to hire a pastor who has demonstrated inappropriate or predatory sexual behavior in the past–RUN AWAY! That’s right, find another church. There are too many wolves out there these days for congregations to indulge a Pollyanna attitude about safety in their church. The sad truth is that some of those predatory pastors know how to weasel their way back into a church leadership position and often the only thing standing between them and a new congregation is the church search or hiring committee.
Don’t get me wrong, I support forgiveness and second chances with appropriate safeguards, but the process of rebuilding trust takes years. Often it’s better if fallen clergy find another career. There are simply too many damaged and vulnerable people sitting in congregations to expect anything from church hiring committees other than absolute commitment to the safety of God’s sheep over nepotism or misguided ideology.
If your church is in the process of hiring a new pastor, I believe it is appropriate for members of the congregation to ask those responsible for hiring to explain the process they will follow, especially the process of background and reference checks. It is OK to ask how they would handle a negative hit in the background check process. Granted, there are issues of confidentiality in hiring procedures and those responsible for hiring might not be allowed by law to share details about a specific candidate’s application. But congregations have a right to know if church leadership has a thorough screening process that they follow without exception. It is a red flag if the hiring committee is determined to hire a candidate without a background check (or they choose to ignore the results of a background check) simply because the candidate is a dynamic speaker, has years of experience, or is the friend or family member of someone in church leadership. In that case, church leaders may be putting vulnerable people in the congregation at risk. On the other hand, hiring committees may be so focused (with good intentions) on developing a dynamic and growing church that they don’t see a candidate’s glaring red flags. Either way, the congregation is at risk. The fix is for congregations to take a more active role in knowing their church’s hiring process.