Sex Offenders: Should They Be Allowed to Attend Church?

At some point, you may learn that a sex offender attends your church—or wants to.

Across the country, convicted sex offenders are being released from prison into communities like yours. Studies indicate that offenders need both treatment and support from others to help them manage feelings that led them to commit sex crimes. Churches can play a substantial role in helping offenders return to society, rebuild relationships, overcome old behaviors, and deepen their faith commitment.

What will you do when a sex offender seeks help from your ministry?

  • Allow the person to stay unconditionally, and pray that nothing happens? The offender may harm someone in the church, traumatizing the victim and devastating your ministry.

  • Ask the person to leave? Ministry leaders are generally free to prohibit sex offenders (or any individuals) from attending, especially if the ministry does not have the resources to appropriately monitor a sex offender's activities while they are at church. Of course, this may raise tough questions about the church’s position on forgiveness.

  • Offer support if the person is repentant? You’ll need to meet the offender’s needs, overcome members’ objections, and protect vulnerable people in your flock. That’s a tall order, but it can be accomplished in many cases.

Be Prepared

Contemplate how you’ll handle this situation before it arises. While a registered sex offender may request permission to attend church, it may also be that an offender’s background is discovered after years of attendance. Your church should act now to:

  • Decide whether to allow repentant sex offenders to participate in your ministry.

  • Develop a policy outlining the extent of participation allowed.

  • Adopt strategies to manage the situation.

Educate Yourself

Understand the differences. The term “sex offender” covers a wide range of individuals, from the teenager convicted of having sex with his underage girlfriend to the individual who molested dozens of youngsters. Each type of offender presents a different level of risk for committing new offenses.

Research local laws regarding sex offenders. Many cities bar offenders from living within a certain distance of churches, playgrounds, and other places where children gather.

Consult legal counsel before working with sex offenders. Your attorney can help you understand privacy issues and legal requirements in your state, as well as ensure that your policies provide adequate protection for your church.

Develop Procedures

Create a set of procedures that offer accountability for the sex offender and protection for all members, especially children and people with disabilities. Having these procedures in place will:

  • Restrict offenders’ participation in church life (those who recognize the effect of their crimes should accept the limitations).

  • Help minimize church members’ fear when they learn that a sex offender is involved with the church.

Establish a covenant with the offender.

Ask the person to commit to a covenant designed to prevent opportunities for further offense. The covenant should:

  • State specific types of participation permitted (e.g., attending church services is fine, but contact with children on church property or at church-sponsored activities is forbidden).

  • Permit church leaders to tell others in the congregation about the offender’s conviction if you believe it is necessary to do so.

  • Permit church leaders to contact probation officers and others assigned to work with the offender.

  • Outline other stipulations, such as ongoing counseling.

  • State consequences: If the offender violates any of the covenant’s provisions, he or she will no longer be allowed to attend your church or access church property.

Assign an accountability partner.

  • Appoint a prescreened individual to shield the offender from temptation. (Several people can share this responsibility, provided the offender is constantly supervised.)

  • Require that the offender and the accountability partner stay within sight of each other during church activities.

Consider ongoing counseling.

To ensure appropriate guidance for the sex offender, and to help your church assess risks, establish regular counseling sessions for the offender:

  • With the pastor or other church leaders

  • With a counselor who will submit written progress reports to an appointed church leader

Communicate with church members.

  • Decide which church members need to know that a person has a history of sex offenses.

  • Tell the pastor, children’s/youth ministers, and other church leaders that the person has agreed to the conditions of a covenant.

Restrict contact with children.

Your church should already have a policy requiring criminal background checks for youth ministry workers and prohibiting anyone with a history of sex offenses from interacting with the congregation’s children/teens.

Don’t do it alone.

Seek help in assessing the risk that a sex offender will re-offend. Collaborate with local agencies and professionals experienced in helping offenders re-enter the community. Probation officers, social workers, psychologists, counselors, and police officers generally welcome a church’s involvement.

Assess Each Situation Individually

Customize your approach to individual situations. Meeting with sex offenders and working with their probation officers and social workers, your pastor and church leaders will get a better sense of whether to allow a particular offender to participate, and to what extent.