Many conversations about security for churches in my experience are hampered by a narrow focus or bias. To take a practical approach to improve our congregations’ safety, we will need to take a broader view. That is one of the goals of this article.Security is a much broader topic than guns or security cameras. While protecting our large gatherings is critical, we should also be aware that many security incidents happen when someone is alone at the church. Security is not something that we can ignore or just say, “we are in God’s hands” and take no responsibility for our circumstances.
What is stopping your church from developing a safety and security mindset? Doing nothing often comes from a place of denial or a feeling of fear. Are we unwilling to look at our risks because we think it is inconsistent with our theology? Are we reluctant to take responsibility for them because we feel unprepared to do so? It is important to face those questions and take reasonable steps to improve our church’s security.
One of the things you should do before beginning this process is to spend some time in dialogue. Overcome objections to security and obtain buy-in, particularly from your church’s leadership team. Also, keep in mind that our denomination is organized so that the conference is the lowest legal entity recognized in our church structure. We operate as a conference of churches. This means that the actions and choices we make at a local church should be made in the context of that larger body and in cooperation with the conference’s guidelines and policies.
#1 Assemble TeamWith the pastor and elders’ cooperation and support, seek out individuals who may bring knowledge and expertise to your security planning process. Start internally with your members to see if you have medical professionals, first responders, paramedics, firefighters, law enforcement, or people with a military background. These individuals have valuable experience and may have unique gifts to contribute to this aspect of ministry.
Be cautious of those who are too enthusiastic about this role, as they may detract from your church’s ministry’s overall mission and cause fear and conflict with the members and guests. You need team members who have a mature mindset and are patient. These servant-leaders can take responsibility for their actions to achieve peace.
Adventist Risk Management, Inc. (ARM) promotes the positions of a Safety Officer and a Safety Committee in our churches. These individuals are tasked with safety in a broad sense, including preventing injury, planning for emergencies, and caring for the church’s people and property from a risk management perspective. In many churches, they will also be responsible for coordinating security. However, in larger churches, there may be a specialized group asked to lead out in safety.
Next, look outside of your organization for both relationships and essential expertise from community resources such as:
- Child Welfare or Protective Services agencies: They will often have good information on preventing abuse, checklists to assess children's areas and other guidance for those working with children.
- Law Enforcement: crime prevention officers often work with the community.
- The Fire Marshal: assist with fire safety and evacuation planning.
- Occupational Safety agencies: have resources to help you assess the safety of church working conditions.
#2 AssessmentIn Step 1, you established a list of personnel and partnerships. Use this information to assess your risks. This is really a two-part process that includes evaluating risks and understanding those risks more fully.
We should understand that some of the most common security challenges churches face come from:
- Domestic Situations
- Child Custody issues
- Mental health issues
- Local crime
Some churches may find the need to partner with local law enforcement for an on-site presence Sabbath morning. Some may even need to hire contracted security services. However, for many churches, the approach will be to understand their risks and develop some protocols that provide reasonable management of their risk.
It would be a good investment of time to learn more about why people become disruptive. For many, it is due to personal crises. If a person perceives that a situation has exceeded their ability to cope, the emotional anguish becomes intolerable. Familiarize yourself and your team with the causes of personal crises.
- Family Problems: failing marriage, children acting out, arguments with family members
- Financial Problems: foreclosure, job loss, difficulty affording basic needs or paying bills
- Substance Abuse: alcoholism and other forms of addiction put tremendous strain on people
- Medical Conditions: chronic pain, frightening diagnoses, terminal illness, mental illness
#3 Develop PlanIt is now time to build a plan, using the information learned through your evaluative assessment, and the knowledge you gained through the education process. The plan should address your common incidents as well as vulnerabilities the church may have. You want to discuss low severity incidents that happen frequently and those that are possible, but may not have happened to your church, which typically have high severity.
Develop protocols your church can implement in different potential case scenarios. These can include what to do if a suspicious package is found, or the church experiences a violent incident, medical emergency, vehicular accident, tornado, or missing child. Designate individuals on your team to take on specific roles in these scenarios, such as operational command, contact with first responders, and evacuation or lockdown assistants. This is not likely the pastor’s role, and the pastor should be on board with ceding control in an emergency to the designated persons and then first responders.
Consider partnering with the Hospitality or Greeter team as they are on the front lines ensuring that members and guests have a warm and friendly experience. These individuals may serve as additional “eyes and ears” to detect disturbed or disruptive people who may cause an incident.
Educate your congregation about the exits available to them in the event of an evacuation. Conduct practice exercises such as fire drills or active shooter training from time to time to ensure the protocols work well and the congregation can execute them effectively. You can access free resources on conducting these types of drills at Adventisrisk.org or SafetySabbath.com.
Remember, your internal safety team’s role is not to take the place of law enforcement or other first responders. You must collaborate and cooperate with first responders before they arrive and then hand over operational control once they are on site.
#4 Physical SecurityAccess control can fill two roles. First, it allows you to prevent or delay someone from gaining access to your facility. It also may alert you when someone attempts to gain unauthorized entry. Use it to send a psychological message that it will be challenging to gain access. This can be done with fences, walls, bollards, security lighting, cameras, signage, guards, and locks.
Church campus buildings are often used by so many different people that it is sometimes difficult to control who is entering a building and who has keys to the building. It is important to document who has (or should have) keys and rekey the buildings every few years to ensure that only those who should have the keys actually do.
Because many people have access to the building, the frequency of someone forgetting to lock the door behind them can be high. Reinforce that expectation frequently with those who have church keys and establish protocols for adequately securing the building after services, meetings, or other uses. If possible, make sure all doors have a keyed or swipe-card entrance that automatically locks when closing.
Not all doors should be unlocked for entry from the outside, every time the building used. For facilities with multiple entrances, try to restrict which doors are opened to only those who need access. This funnels people to an entry that can be more closely monitored. Exit doors should never be locked or restricted to not allow people to use them as exits in an emergency.
Two of the most fundamental steps you can take to quickly improve your church’s security is to address lighting around the church and to change your locks. Keeping your facility clean and well-maintained also sends a psychological message that this place is cared for and may not be a so-called “soft target.”
Remember that the goal of addressing security at your church is to enhance and protect the ministry’s goals or mission. Our churches strive to be welcoming and friendly places. Those should remain top priorities for the team as you think through your planning process and building out your protocol responses.
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