Considering the recent shooting at the synagogue in California, many faith leaders are taking a hard look at the security of their facilities and their congregations. Over the last few years there have been a number of shootings at houses of worship, with some of the more well known being in Texas, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. These and other events have led to many worship facilities implementing security teams, sometimes called safety teams, and reworking their security plans. Throughout this article, I will generally use the term “church” and “congregation” for the purpose of brevity to refer broadly to all houses of worship and people of faith.
If you are reading this article, you must have at least a cursory interest in the topic of security for houses of worship. That’s great! This in fact leads into the first point of discussion: Churches by their very nature are open, welcoming, comforting places. Their congregations are likewise trusting, friendly, and in general leave their guard down. All of this is completely understandable, but it does lead to a number of issues when it comes to improving security.
Very often the biggest hurdle to implementing a church security team is convincing church leadership and the congregation that one is necessary in the first place. There are churches where even the discussion of locking the doors to the building during worship hours is frowned upon! Convincing the church to create a team can be a difficult process, and convincing the congregation can be even harder. I have heard churches relate the problem by saying their congregation is comprised in large part by senior citizens, many of whom have gone to the church for decades. Convincing them of the need for a security team, so these churches have said, has at times been exceedingly difficult.
Going back to the issue of locked doors, I once heard a church say that they began locking just the side doors to their church. The first Sunday they locked the doors, one of their church members was stuck outside! They said this particular woman, who was a senior citizen, had used the same side door to enter the church the entire time she had been a member of the congregation. Once the door was locked, she didn’t know how else to get in! She was quite upset at the whole matter and not fond of the door being locked. It is little issues like this that will need to be worked out if you implement a security plan at your own church.
Thus far we have been speaking fairly broadly, relating the matter to the recent shootings. Let’s take a step back, and talk about why we would want to have a security plan and security team in the first place! The reasons for a security plan and team at church are largely the same as any other business or work place that has a security or safety team and plans. This is your church, and you are responsible for your congregation. You want them to feel safe and relaxed while they are attending the services. Some churches hire off duty police officers to work as security, and this is a great option. However, it can be cost prohibitive for many churches. Writing security plans costs nothing, and having a security team can be as cheap or as expensive as you wish it to be. Much like fire drills we all did in school, having a plan in place prior to any sort of event can aid in making the response to an event less chaotic.
Now, let’s take this time to cover some various scenarios that may present themselves. When church security is first mentioned, most often people envision an active shooter type situation. Although these do of course occur, it is important to remember that they remain a rare and worst case scenario. What is much more likely to occur are things like a fire, or a domestic situation. A fire may be set intentionally, but let us remember that they can easily be started accidentally, such as from the stove or oven many churches have for special occasions. Just like elementary school, having a fire plan is important. This includes readily available fire extinguishers of the type appropriate for the type of fire they would encounter, staff that is trained in the use of the fire extinguishers, smoke detectors that regularly have batteries replaced, and a rally point away from the building.
A domestic situation can be highly volatile and also highly sensitive. The church is home to countless people living in abusive relationships, those who are going through a divorce or are recently separated, custody battles, and more. If possible, key church staff and the security team should be made aware of any such situations and if there is any legal documentation in place. If there is such documentation, such as a protective or restraining order, the church should maintain a copy in it’s files. This is so that if the person listed on the order shows up at the church and violates the order, the copy can be shown to police. Security teams should be trained in de-escalation and conflict management techniques, to help calm these situations until police arrive.
There are a number of other incidents that can present security concerns to a church and it’s congregation, and those listed here are mainly to stir further discussion amongst you and your congregations. A church’s response to an active shooter can vary greatly, and is enough to be an article in and of itself. However, some simple measures such as listed in this article can go a long way to improving overall security. Locking the doors, posting security members at the entrance and exit points and also outside of the main room where the sermon is held, and having security members roam through the parking lot for suspicious vehicles are all free, easily implemented strategies that offer a big improvement.
In future articles, we will discuss more specifically options for responding to an active shooter and similar incidences. We hope this article helps answer the basics and maybe help address areas you haven’t thought of yet.
By: Frank Hughes (Spotter Up)