A Delicate Balance

Respect for personal privacy is a long and honorable tradition in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is integral to the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” that we embrace, and to the individualism that has characterized us since Puritan times. During the 1950s and 60s, when many now older members affiliated with Unitarian Universalist congregations, personal privacy was fiercely defended in the face of McCarthyism and stifling social conformity. Security procedures of any kind in a congregational setting thus continue to be found offensive in principle by some Unitarian Universalists.

These guidelines cover two varieties of security procedures. Background checks, as we use the term, search public data banks such as criminal conviction records. Reference checks seek non-public information, and concentrate on interviewing persons who have acquaintance with the person under consideration.

These guidelines recommend a balance between respect for personal privacy on the one hand and respect for congregations as trust-based communities on the other. Persons in congregational settings expect to be able to be vulnerable; we expect to be safe from exploitation, to be able to “let our guard down.” Thus the question criminal conviction checks ask—has this person been convicted of a felony (and in some searches, misdemeanor)?— deserves an accurate answer. Yet an answer in the affirmative is in many cases only an invitation to further exploration. Was the criminal trespass for purposes of burglary, or civil disobedience? Was the drug conviction for selling cocaine or possessing marijuana? Was the statutory rape conviction of a 40-year-old man with 12-year-old girl, or of an 18-year-old with a 16-year old? How long ago was it? What kind of life has the person lived since? And remembering the differential rates of prosecution and conviction of people of European background and people of color/members of historically marginalized groups, what was the context of the event, and what other factors were involved?

In addition, the requirements of the particular position sought should be relevant to the analysis of an individual’s conviction history. For instance, a recent conviction for embezzlement should disqualify an applicant for a position in which the individual will have access to others’ finances. Similarly, because of the unique role of ministers in UUA organizations, more extensive and exhaustive review measures are appropriate.

Federal and state law may also impact inquiries into criminal history or other background reviews. For instance, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act imposes particular authorization and disclosure requirements for background checks conducted by outside agencies, and state law may have additional requirements or limitations. There may also be unique resources in each state that can be utilized for purposes of conducting background checks. These can include offender registries and listings of individuals who have engaged in fraudulent practices.

These guidelines further counsel a do-it-yourself approach to reference checks. The greater the ability of the search committee or hiring body to develop detailed acquaintance with the persons it is considering, the greater its ability to make an informed selection. Reliance on the technical means offered by outside agencies should at all points be considered second best to in-person conversation.

Self-reliance requires imagination. “Google” persons’ names to see what, if anything, comes up. Check out the websites of the congregations they are currently serving, even those they have served. By such means you may well unearth valuable new conversation topics by which you can get to know them better.