News of attacks in churches and other public places has caused more and more church leaders to make security a priority. In November 2017, a gunman killed 26 people in a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas. In June 2015, nine people attending a Bible study at a church in Charleston, S.C. were shot and killed.
A recent study found that there had been 137 church shootings during the 25 year period between 1980 and 2005 in the United States, most of which thankfully did not result in deaths. Ongoing work to update the database found that, in the 10 year period between 2006 and 2016, there were 147 church shootings. And neither count includes attacks on non-Christian religious institutions such as mosques and synagogues. Although attacks on places of worship are still rare, their frequency is rising.
Security in churches is a tricky issue, though. Church leaders want to be welcoming to all but also want to keep their congregations safe. Congregations shouldn’t be afraid to attend church, but they can’t afford to ignore risks. Addressing this sensitive issue requires a delicately balanced approach. To keep this balance, it becomes necessary to do some planning and take preventative measures so that churchgoers can feel safe while they worship and fellowship, while still welcoming newcomers and visitors to their church services and events.
There are also, of course, other safety risks that church leaders need to keep in mind. These include extreme weather events, medical emergencies and other incidents.
The following church security tips outline a plan for helping you keep your church safe.
1. Conduct a Safety Assessment
Preparation is key to this balance. To get a better idea of what steps you should take, conduct a safety assessment of your building and safety resources. Evaluate the physical aspects of your building, any safety plans you have in place and the resources you have that you can put toward security and safety measures.
In your safety assessment, take a look at:
- Entrances and exits
- Cameras, lighting and other security-related features
- Available medical supplies such as first aid kits and automated external defibrillators (AEDs)
- Basements and other areas that could be used for refuge during extreme weather events
- Plans and protocols you have in place
- Financial resources that can go toward safety and security
- People in your church community who have security and safety knowledge and experience
If there are members of your congregation who have experience in safety or security work, have them help you with the assessment. You might also consider reaching out to local safety professionals such as police or firefighters. These experts will be able to help you understand safety issues and offer ideas for church security improvements.
2. Create a Safety Ministry
Once you’ve done a review of the safety aspects of your church, you can assemble a team to help you manage security issues. Some have called this team a safety ministry or safety committee. Members of this committee could include church leadership, interested congregation members, community leaders, public safety officials and local law enforcement. This safety ministry can help create safety and security plans, organize training events, allocate the safety budget and provide support to the congregation.
Some larger churches have created security teams and even hired professional security guards. Many churches, though, don’t have the budget to hire security professionals and feel hesitant about having either professional or volunteer security guards. You might feel comfortable, however, with designating qualified volunteers to simply keep a watchful eye and take the lead in the unfortunate case that an issue does occur.
Police may be willing to provide some extra security if you host any larger events. Just having a police officer nearby or patrolling the area can be a valuable deterrent and provide some peace of mind.
Even if you don’t have local law enforcement or safety professionals on your safety committee or providing security at services and events, developing a relationship with them could still be helpful to you. Open up a line of communication with them, invite them to events and offer your building for them to use for meetings, drills or other activities. This may help make them more accessible if you have questions or need advice.
3. Create a Security Plan
Once you have a team around you, you can work together to create a security plan. Having a plan is one of the most important things you can do to give your congregation peace of mind. It enables you to continue to hold the services and events you normally do and maintain an open and welcoming environment while still minimizing risks and helping your congregation feel safe.
You should do planning for both prevention and what you’ll do if something unfortunate happens. Create official, written plans for various situations.
For prevention, create procedures and rules that church leaders should follow at all times. For example, consider setting hours of operation and decide when the church doors will be locked and when they’ll be open. When the doors are open, ensure that there are at least two church leaders in the building. This minimizes the risk of theft and other security issues.
When children are involved, you must give special attention to safety and security. There should always be at least two adults with children, and you should conduct the proper background checks, including child abuse clearances, criminal background checks and FBI clearances, on anyone who will be working with children. This applies to both employees and volunteers. Check your local and state laws for the specific requirements that apply in your area.
You will also need plans for how you’ll respond if something happens. Create procedures for all kinds of incidents, even if it seems unlikely that it will occur at your church. Have plans for extreme weather events, medical emergencies, active shooters and other incidents.
The appropriate reaction will be different for different situations, so it may be helpful to get people with safety experience to help you in creating these plans, even if they’re not officially a part of your safety committee. Your procedures might include defining emergency exit routes, designating safe places where churchgoers can take refuge, identifying who will lead responses and determining how you will contact emergency services.
4. Invest in Safety and Security Equipment
The safety and security equipment you have available may be another crucial part of your prevention and response plans. Some religious organizations may hesitate when it comes to purchasing new devices because of budget concerns. If you know where to look, however, you can find affordable safety resources. You might also be eligible for grants and other financial assistance for your security initiatives. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for example, operates a Nonprofit Security Grant Program. Check with other federal, state and local government agencies and non-profit groups as well for other opportunities.
Consider the following tools to assist with preventative measures.
- Video Surveillance Systems: Video surveillance can be a powerful deterrent for many would-be criminals. Cameras can also help to investigate reports of suspicious activity. If you get such a report, you can check video footage and take extra preventative measures if it seems there may be a threat. In the event of theft, surveillance systems can help a church to get stolen items returned, with the help of police.
- Security Alarms: Alarm systems are another smart investment for updating security. Place alarms on doors and windows that alert church leaders or law enforcement of potential break-ins, or simply make a loud noise to scare away intruders. These devices can be helpful for preventing theft, vandalism and other illegal acts.
- Adequate Lighting: Installing additional lighting on church grounds is a simple yet effective way to improve safety and provide peace of mind. Well-lit areas are less likely to be the target of criminal activity. Put lighting on the outside of the building, especially near doorways, in parking lots and other parts of church ground where people often are. Choosing motion-activated lighting can be especially useful. If a light comes on when a would-be criminal or troublemaker is on the grounds, they might think someone is there, which could scare them into leaving. Adequate lighting also makes video cameras more effective.
- Other Preventative Equipment: You should already have some preventative equipment in your church, such as smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Test these devices regularly to ensure that they are functioning properly and have adequate battery life.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to prevent every sort of emergency. These tools can help you respond if an incident occurs:
- Silent Alarms
In the event of an emergency, it might difficult to contact emergency services through typical means. You might not be able to call and speak with a dispatcher to explain what is happening, especially in the event of an attack. In these situations, you can use panic alarms to get help without putting yourself in more danger.
You can install panic buttons in discreet places such as underneath pews, at an information station, or even have ushers carry them. Church leaders can also wear them or keep them in their pockets. If an emergency situation occurs, someone can press the panic button on the device, which will connect to an emergency operator. The machine makes no noise so as not to draw attention to it and allow someone to get help discreetly, which can be crucial in events such as hostage situations. The operator can listen in, however, and direct first responders to the scene.
- Medical Equipment
You should have first aid kits placed in easy-to-access locations around your church grounds. In these kits, keep basic medical supplies including but not limited to:
- Bandages, dressings, cloth tape and gauze pads
- Antibiotic ointment and antiseptic wipes
- Over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers
- Sterile gloves
- Breathing barrier
- Instant cold compress
- Emergency blanket
- First aid instructions
Check the contents of your first aid kits regularly and ensure that you immediately replace anything you use or remove from the kits. Also, have other emergency medical equipment available such as automated external defibrillators (AEDs), which check heart rhythm and can treat sudden cardiac arrest by using electric shock to restore a normal heart rhythm.
- Emergency Kit
In addition to first aid kits, consider putting together emergency kits in case people get trapped in the church building during a storm or other emergency. In these kits, include flashlights, battery-powered or hand-crank NOAA Weather Radios, extra batteries, sanitation and personal hygiene items, cell phone chargers, blankets, multi-purpose tools, work gloves and anything else you might need in an emergency. It can be difficult to include enough food and water in a church emergency kit but store as much water and non-perishable foods as you can. It may also be wise to include baby formula and bottles, baby food, diapers and games to keep children entertained.
5. Have a Communication Plan
Having plans in place and resources available is just part of the equation, however. Church leaders also need to make sure that their congregations, and anyone else who may need to know, have the information they need to make the plans effective.
You should publish your plans in official church documents. You might choose to make some of these plans readily accessible to people through newsletters, your website or other church resources. There are some plans you might not want to make publicly available, however. Choose what to release based on your discretion and the advice of public safety officials and other qualified individuals.
You should post some plans, such as emergency exit routes, in plain view in your buildings. You will also need to ensure that you clearly mark emergency exits. You may also want to provide resources that indicate where people can find fire extinguishers, first aid kits and other supplies.
Develop a system to communicate to your congregation about any changes to your plans and to share safety tips. These communications systems can also help to provide peace of mind to church attendees by providing support and an open line of communication.
You should also establish a way to inform everyone if an incident occurs. A mass notification alert system enables you to send texts or emails or make phone calls to large groups of people all at once to warn them of dangerous situations, keep them informed about things such as weather delays and event cancellations, or even just general announcements. You could also use it to send out reminders about attending events.
6. Conduct Safety Training and Drills
To help keep church leaders prepared, you may want to set up or participate in training events. As security becomes a more pressing concern, more organizations are offering safety and security training events, some of which are designed especially for church leaders. Attending these events can give congregation leaders valuable skills and knowledge that will enhance your church’s security.
Even if you don’t attend outside events for training, you may want to hold some yourself, either for church leaders or the congregation as a whole. Your safety ministry could run these events, and you could also bring outside help from law enforcement, CPR instructors, self-defense instructors and others.
Additionally, you should regularly conduct drills to help people practice reacting to emergency situations. These drills could include fire, tornado, active shooter drills and more.
7. Periodically Review Your Safety Plans
Just as you regularly conduct drills, you should also periodically review your safety and security plans and resources. You might want to perform a safety assessment annually. As conditions change, update your church security procedures and communicate those updates to your congregation. Also, check your safety equipment regularly to be sure that it’s working correctly.
Staying ahead of potential threats is crucial to keeping your church safe.
Today, safety and security are constant concerns, especially in public places such as churches. We can’t let the dangers of this world keep us from living our lives though. Taking preventative measures and ensuring you’re prepared for the possibility of an emergency is essential for keeping our churches safe and welcoming places.