By Eric Spacek, JD, ARM
As church leaders, staff, volunteers or even members of the church, it is hard to imagine a religious facility being a prime target for criminals. Churches are seen as sacred and safe places; however, violent incidents of varying natures happen several times each year across the country. Because these places of worship are open to the public, churches have become more vulnerable to senseless acts of violence. As a church leader, you will be looked at as a symbol of hope when disaster strikes.
While rare, violent acts do occur at churches. No religious organization, big or small, is immune to the risk of a violent episode. These acts may include robbery, assault, rape and even murder. The most common violent act is a shooting. Typically, these vicious attacks are carried out by people who have some connection to the congregation, and have oftentimes given a warning sign, such as threats, outbursts, disputes or other confrontations.
There is no assurance that a violent episode can be avoided; however, your church can be prepared for the possibility of an incident occurring.
Make your church less vulnerable
- Working with your church’s safety and security team, designate a person to take the lead on security issues, and define responsibilities of that position.
- Conduct a security assessment to identify your church’s vulnerabilities. This should be conducted in conjunction with your local law enforcement agency or other security professional.
- Develop a church security plan and guidelines with defined roles for all members of your staff, including greeters, ushers and other frontline workers and volunteers. Use your local law enforcement agency to help form the church’s security plan.
- In your security plan, include a seating location for ushers and / or security personnel — strategically stationing them in both the front and rear of the sanctuary. Be sure to also include lockdown procedures for all areas of the facility, crisis communications, and an evacuation plan for the building.
- Establish a method for quickly communicating issues of concern, such as a weapon, to appropriate church personnel and authorities. Walkie-talkies, two-way radios and cell phones might be appropriate to have on hand.
- Establish a no-tolerance policy for fights, altercations and other disruptions.
- Work with local law enforcement to provide training for staff and volunteers on topics such as dealing with disruptive individuals and identifying and diffusing potentially violent situations.
- The use of professional or volunteer security guards at church has become more commonplace in recent years. Churches generally have three options when it comes to the use of security guards to help keep your ministry safe:
- Hire off-duty law enforcement personnel;
- Hire a professional security guard service; or
- Maintain a security guard force at your church.
What to do in the event of a violent incident
If a violent incident occurs at your facility, the first priority is to protect the people in your congregation. To ensure everyone’s safety, follow these steps:
- Call 911 as soon as it is safe to do so.
- If there is an opportunity to keep the invader out by locking doors and / or closing off areas of the church, do so.
- If there is an opportunity to remove all members and guests from the premises, do so as quickly and safely as possible.
- Quickly control panic situations. Ideally, this will likely lead to a sequenced evacuation.
- A church leader must take charge and provide orders to be followed.
- All orders must be clear and direct, such as:
- “Ushers, secure the building.”
- “(Name), call the police.”
- “(Name), secure the nursery.”
- “Everyone, take cover on the floor.”
While not every violent incident can be prevented, taking the steps outlined above can help your religious organization become better prepared for responding to criminal acts and for communicating to your congregation during a crisis.
Eric Spacek, JD, ARM is the Director of Risk Management and Loss Control at GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines, IA. Before joining GuideOne, he served as Minister of Operations for a large Methodist church in Raleigh, NC, and was a liability litigation trial attorney in Washington, D.C.