Closer Looks in Tough Times

by Bob Dingman

Churches, ministries, and schools that are labeled “Christian” are coming under closer scrutiny and experiencing greater criticism currently than in the recent past. Evangelical Christians inherit distrust from the moral lapses of the Catholic clergy, as well as its own, as inquiries are digging deeper into the actions of teachers, clergy, therapists, physicians, and others who hold positions of trust. 

ECFA has a deep interest in accountability in areas where the unacceptable backgrounds of leaders or staff of Christian organizations impact the effectiveness and reputation of their mission. Donors and members give less when there are clouds over the moral tone or accounting practices of a church or ministry.

Reference checking before hiring is usually tedious, often boring, and always undervalued as a way to prevent major disasters. Because most people have recurring behavior patterns, careful reference checking can reveal many things that interviewing cannot. Recruiting and training new employees is a costly business practice, but greater risks lie in missing important behavioral factors that will compromise the ministry.

The high cost of bad hires.  Most CEOs or Senior Pastors can tell you about a hiring mistake that proved costly because of something they learned only after they hired the person. The factors leading to the termination were something that could have been learned in advance by careful reference checking.

Why are Christian groups such terrible reference checkers? Questions about a candidate’s spiritual status are hard to frame, and answers are difficult to evaluate. When you are considering a candidate for a position as pastor or CEO of a ministry, it seems inappropriate and embarrassing to ask about morality issues or financial improprieties. Asking about the unthinkable becomes possible only when careful thought leads to a set of written questions that each person uses to check references.

You won’t find perfection. Search for the candidate’s weaknesses and see if your organization can live with them or provide support in those areas. After all, your organization isn’t perfect either.

Some excellent candidates can have some bad references. (I once placed a president who became outstanding, but who had been fired from his two prior positions.) This requires getting references on those providing the negative reference, so you can clearly identify the extenuating circumstances involved. It could be a personality clash, an ethical dilemma, a theological difference, or a variety of other reasons that would not disqualify the candidate for your position.

As the search begins, try to get a realistic view of your church or organization. Using baseball analogy, are you a minor league organization who hopes to attract a major league leader? Don’t aim too high. Phrases like “We want the best there is” lead to trouble. References should reveal a level of ability and competence that fit your ministry.

Would Christian sources lie? Poor preachers regularly move on from church to church because of flawed reference checking. So do leaders with sexual problems. A contributing complication to the challenge of reference checking is that (hold your breath) Christian sources often lie when answering your questions. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • Wanting to get rid of someone.
  • Fear that a negative reference will cause them to feel responsible for the person not being hired again.
  • Believing that forgiveness is their duty and that the candidate has learned his/her lesson and won’t repeat it.

Prepare the candidate for tough questions. The candidate can easily understand why, in these troubled times, there is a need to ask questions about morals, inappropriate behavior, financial instability, and even a possible criminal record. Discuss these openly and if it is distressing to the candidate, try to find out why or let the candidate go. Such questioning is probably new to you and the candidate, so go slowly, feeling your way with sensitivity. 

Be willing to let go. When the references are mixed, the decision can be tough to make. Try not to let the need to fill the position, or even your liking of the candidate, cause you to ignore significant negative references. If you are tempted to do so, try to estimate how bad things would be if you had to fire that person within a year. If the position is a key one, settling for a second-rater can have discouraging results.

“I felt the Lord leading me . . .” As Christians, we try to seek the Lord’s leading in all aspects of our lives.  In making hiring decisions, as in choosing a marriage partner, it can be difficult to distinguish between what we are attracted to and what is true spiritual guidance. If you feel strongly drawn to a candidate, try to step back and analyze why.  Because they are a lot like you, perhaps? Because they are what you once wanted to be? Use other staff members to review the references and interview the candidate to verify your impressions of a candidate.

Do it on the phone. Written reference checks are of little value, so talk on the phone or face to face, if possible. We all have filled out recommendations for someone of little merit and we tried hard until we found something positive to say. The nuance or inflection of a voice can change the whole meaning, but a written statement just lies on the page, seeking clarification. 

Check the obvious stuff. In addition to checking employment dates on candidates, verify degrees, professional certifications, and licenses. At higher levels you will want to check for expense account abuse, and perhaps you will want to check out the spouse and family. At lower levels, you will have interest in absenteeism and a possible pattern of workman’s compensation claims.

Check the computer listing of sex offenders in your area to see if your candidate is among them (ask your police department for help on this if you need it.) Check the area where the candidate now lives and the prior one, too. I agree that it seems unthinkable, but performing “due diligence” requires it.

Check all the dates. In the candidate’s resume, be sure that the dates of employment are consecutive, leaving no unemployed periods of time. Check those dates with past employers, even if you aren’t checking a reference there. A variety of unpleasant events can lurk behind unexplained time periods.

Get a reference from the current boss. Most good candidates are currently employed.  If one is as promising as you believe, he or she is doing well there, and the boss would not like to see him or her leave. Contacting a current employer may impact a candidate’s future there if you don’t hire this person, so he or she may not give you permission to make the call.

If that reference is essential to your evaluation, get the candidate’s permission to make the call after you hire him or her, with continuing employment conditioned upon a satisfactory reference check. If the candidate declines a confirming reference check, be cautious as you move ahead.

Summary. How long will all this take? Depending on how complex the background is, it will take from three or four hours up to several days, probably spread over a week or two. You may have to call two or three times to get a reference you really need. If the source knows why you are calling and has a negative opinion of the candidate, he or she may try to avoid you. Be persistent and track this source down!


Reasons to Check References

  • If the pastor of your church seeks romance with women other than his wife, he probably did so in his prior church, too.

  • If a treasurer or controller diverts funds for personal use, reference checks may reveal earlier episodes, too.

  • If a youth worker molested a child in some other organization, you want to know about this so you won’t hire this youth worker.

  • If a candidate has a financial history of bankruptcies and financial instability, you need this information before making a decision.

  • If your fundraising candidate claims a great record of accomplishments, the claims need to be substantiated, as well as assurances that those funds were raised using biblical principles.



Bob Dingman's career in the executive search profession extended over 40 years. Bob served on the ECFA Board of Directors.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.