2024 Overtures on Background Checks

Five of the thirty-five Overtures submitted to the 2024 General Assembly are related to background checks. While there are some similarities, there are also important differences to be noted.

History of Background Check Overtures

The Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault (DASA) Report

The 2019 PCA General Assembly commissioned an Ad Interim (temporary) Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault to study and report on best practices and guidelines for protecting against and responding to abuse. This report, commonly referred to as the DASA Report, was delivered to the 2022 PCA General Assembly.

Reports of Ad Interim Committees in the PCA are not "constitutionally binding" but are considered "pious advice". In other words, no one can be required to comply with an AIC (Ad Interim Committee) report or be disciplined for not doing so, but as a document adopted by the denomination it should be treated as godly wisdom.

As the rationale for one of this year's background check overtures explains,

On six separate occasions the Ad-Interim Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault recommended that Presbyteries and churches require background checks to better protect their members – including the statement, “Churches protect their members with policies that take into consideration the most vulnerable in the congregation” by including, but not limited to, “Presbyteries enacting policies to require background checks and abuse training for all ordinands and transfers, and policies to protect whistleblowers against retribution.” (DASA Report, pg. 2314)

Overture 2023-6 from South Texas Presbytery

 In 2023, South Texas Presbytery submitted this Overture which proposed to add language to several sections of the Book of Church Order (BCO) about the ordination, licensure and transfer of ministers requiring that "the Presbytery [or session] shall cause a criminal background check to be performed."

The Overture also outlined who would receive the results of the background check, including (depending on the role and situation of the officer candidate): the receiving Presbytery, the transferring Presbytery, the calling church, the session and perhaps the congregation if appropriate.

This Overture never made it out of the Overtures Committee. The Committee voted to refer it back to the South Texas Presbytery for further revision and the General Assembly approved this recommendation.

A small subcommittee of the Overtures Committee wrote up this summary of the reasons they did not recommend the Overture be approved.

Here is a summary of the reasons:

  1. Churches are already free to do background checks if they choose. Requiring them to do so restricts their liberty.
  2. The Overture does not specify what kind of background check is required.
  3. Requirements to share with different groups without confidentiality safeguards risks a man's reputation be harmed by false or inaccurate information.
  4. Churches shouldn't be required to perform background checks on men who have been officers in the church for a long time and are well known to the congregation.
  5. Requiring background checks could violate the liberty of conscience of churches or candidates who do not trust the state.
  6. Lack of clarity about the consequences of refusing a background check and the concern that this adds extra-biblical requirements to qualification for office.

2024 Background Check Overtures

Amendments with Less-Specific Requirements

Because Overture 2023-6 was referred back to the South Texas Presbytery "without prejudice" (no statement on the merits of the Overture, just a request for further revisions) members of that Presbytery worked to revise the Overture.

In an effort to craft an Overture that was as broadly acceptable as possible, men from several Presbyteries discussed potential concerns and objections. One possible obstacle was the "grassroots" nature of the PCA. In general, churches and Presbyteries resist top-down requirements and favor local autonomy.

The agreed solution was to require Presbyteries to develop their own background check policy to be included in their bylaws rather than creating a denomination-wide specific background check policy. Three of the 2024 Background Check Overtures reflect this approach and are nearly identical in their language:

Amendments with More-Specific Requirements

Because one of the listed objections to the original background check Overture was that it was too vague in terms of the type of background check required (reason 2 above), two Presbyteries submitted Overtures that sought to clarify and specify the types of background checks reqiured.

Overture 6 from Susquehanna Valley Presbytery specifies that Presbyteries and Sessions should use "an 'Identity History Summary' from the FBI and a state/local background check or a 'Vulnerable Sector Check' from the Canadian Government."

Overture 23 from Missouri Presbytery simply calls for "a state and federal level fingerprint-based background check."

Dialogue About Background Checks

Folks from all corners of the PCA have concerns and opinions about background checks in general, making them a requirement in the PCA, and these Overtures in specific. Here are some of the perspectives floating around.

Ruling Elder Joshua Torrey from South Texas Presbytery, primary author of the original 2023-6 Background Check Overture and this year's Overture 24, and leading organizer of the language in the 2024 less-specific Background Check Overtures addresses several common objections in this article. He also participated in this interview with Jude 3 and the PCA.

Joshua Torrey and Jason Piland, Teaching Elder and primary author of Overture 17 from Ohio Presbytery, also talked on this podcast episode about how to enact background checks in a "grassroots" denomination.

Brad Isbell, Ruling Elder from Tennessee Valley Presbytery, board member of MORE in the PCA, and co-host of the Presbycast Podcast, objects to the denomination requiring background checks on the grounds that it imposes a financial requirement on churches and Presbyteries. He believes this violates the Book of Church Order, paragraph 25-10 which says, in part, that the denomination "promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will." You can read his arguments here.

Commentary from Donahoe, Coffin, and Greco

This article overviewing the 2024 Overtures included resources from Howie Donahoe, Dr. David Coffin, and Fred Greco sharing their preliminary thoughts on each of the 35 Overtures. I have linked each author's name to his complete document. Here is a summary of their comments on background checks ...

Ruling Elder Howie Donahoe believes that Overture 17 from Ohio Presbytery is the most promising of the 5 Background Check Overtures. Some of his comments include ...

The libertarian in me wants to say presbyteries are already free to do these checks, so let them decide. But we already stipulate many other constitutionally required steps that sessions and presbyteries must follow in the ordination of officers ... In addition to the arguments offered in the Overture, background checks have become 'the standard of care' for organizations today ... It's not as difficult as some think, or as expensive ... I was born in 1955, and I expect my Boomer generation may think of background checks as threatening or invasive things, whereas my kids' generation sees them as status quo and the standard for due diligence. They'd be surprised to learn some of our churches hire pastors or elect elders without checks that are routine in the companies where they work.
Finally, two observations/exhortations. First, a pastor search committee should not wait for the presbytery to do a background check. If a church doesn't learn of a problem until that point, it's far downstream and could be more disruptive to the church than if it had been caught upstream. Second, paid background checks won't eliminate for the need for an appropriate person to "pick up the phone" and call someone at the man's previous church or presbytery. No background check will ever tell you that the officer or officer candidate was Admonished for some offense, or was a bad boss, or a harsh person.

Dr. David Coffin is not in favor of any of the background check Overtures on these grounds (note: he has extensive additional support for these points in footnotes on each of these comments)

1. Background checks are not reliable.
2. The ephemeral has no place in the BCO.
3. Questions of conscience are not addressed adequately.
4. Legal liability for sharing results of background check with receiving Presbytery, with dismissing Presbytery, with calling body are not addressed. O.23

With regard to concern 1, he quotes research on the frequency of false-positives and false-negatives on background checks. Concern 2 relates to the specific language of "Identity History Summary” from the FBI . . . or a “Vulnerable Sector Check” from the Canadian Government, terms which are very current and could foreseeably become irrelevant if the names of those processes changes. Concern 4 relates to the laws that surrounding sharing the information obtained on a background check.

Pastor Fred Greco concurs with Howie Donahoe that Overture 17 is the most promising of the five and yet recommends that it be answered in the negative (rejected) ...

This Overture is superior to the others (O6, O16, O23, and O24) before the Assembly this year. It also has a laudable purpose – to have background checks be a norm in our churches for child protection. I believe that every church should, at a bare minimum, do background checks on all officers, officer candidates, staff, and those who work with children.

But this Overture would mandate background checks without mandating the process and procedures. On the one hand, that is good because with a multiplicity of jurisdictions (including Canada!), specifying procedures would be impossible. But that also means that problems can arise: who gets to see the background checks? Who pays for them? Who protects the private information required? Far better a “should” than a “shall.” 

Advice from the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB)

Although all of these Overtures have been submitted to the Overtures Committee for deliberation and recommendation, the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) has also been asked to give advice on whether there is any conflict between the proposed language in these amendments and other sections of the Book of Church Order (BCO)

Overture 6 from Susquehanna Valley Presbytery:

In the opinion of the CCB, Overture 6, particularly the language “shall obtain and review,” is in conflict with (1) WCF 23.3 because, insofar as it adds a requirement for Presbytery to obtain something that the civil magistrate might withhold or abolish, it cedes to the civil magistrate an effective authority he may not assume, namely, the right to deny admittance to the body of Christ and (2) BCO Preliminary Principle II in that it deprives members of the church of the right to
determine who shall be admitted to its communion (6-1-1).

Note: The "(6-1-1)" at the end of this quote indicates that of the eight members of the committee voting on this response, six agreed, one disagreed, and one abstained.

Overture 23 from Missouri Presbytery:

In the opinion of the CCB, Overture 23 is in conflict with (1) WCF 23.3 because, insofar as it adds a
requirement for Presbytery to “cause . . . to be performed” something that the civil magistrate might
withhold or abolish, it cedes to the civil magistrate an effective authority he may not assume, namely, the right to deny admittance to the body of Christ and (2) BCO Preliminary Principle II in that it
deprives members of the church of the right to determine who shall be admitted to its communion (8-0-0).

Overtures 16, 17, and 24:

The CCB advised that there was no conflict with any of these (less-specific) Overtures.

Listening to the Conversation on Background Checks

This history and commentary reveal the range of views on the requirement of background checks in PCA Churches. Far from a binary "yes" or "no" to background checks, those speaking about these Overtures at General Assembly may hold one (or a variation of) the following views ...

  1. Background checks are necessary, the denomination should require them, and we should pass one of these Overtures (with possible amendments) to do that.
  2. Background checks are necessary, the denomination should require them, but there are significant enough issues with all of these Overtures that they are not ready to be approved.
  3. Background checks are important, but the denomination should not require them - the churches and Presbyteries should be left free to make that decision on their own.
  4. Background checks are problematic and should not be used by churches or Presbyteries.

About the author 

Lynna Sutherland

Lynna has been in the PCA since 1982. Four generations of her family have participated in PCA church planting. Lynna has been around long enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly and her particular calling is to equip the people in the pew to understand their church government and to advocate for victims of abuse in the PCA.

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