Thinking about the Unthinkable
Thinking about the Unthinkable
On June 17, 2015, a man walked into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, and took the lives of nine church members. The depravity of this mass murder couldn’t be ignored. Media outlets covered the event for weeks, the story made the cover of TIME magazine, and President Obama spoke at one victim’s funeral.
Church violence is a stark reality, but it’s a reality that many ministries don’t fully comprehend. You probably heard about the shooting in Charleston just hours after it happened, but many violent episodes in churches go relatively unnoticed. And, there are many more potentially dangerous situations that never make it to a newsworthy status because they are diffused by church leaders.
It’s important to be aware of these possibilities as your church prepares for Christmas services and celebrations - the busiest time of the year for most churches. Securing your buildings and keeping worshippers safe is a top priority. God reassures us several times in the Bible that we can trust in him and not be afraid. But, we can also learn from the actions of God’s people in Nehemiah 4: “We prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection . . . day and night” (v. 9; ESV).
According to church security expert Carl Chinn, there have been more than 1,200 deadly force incidents at faith-based organizations in the United States since 1999. (The statistic includes incidents involving abductions, attacks, suspicious deaths, suicides, and deadly force interventions.) Nearly 375 deaths occurred as part of these incidents - including 77 deaths in 2015 and 12 in the first four months of 2016.
No church is immune to violence. Incidents large and small have happened at megachurches, rural churches, and everywhere in between. The reasoning behind the violence is just as varied as the locations. The top three triggers of violence are robberies, domestic violence, and personal conflicts. Gang activity, untreated mental health issues, and religious bias are also known triggers.
Assembling a Safety Committee
No matter the triggers of the violent attacks, churches should have one goal in mind - keeping worshippers safe. One of the first steps toward that goal is creating a safety committee.
Look for five or ten church members who have the gifts necessary to lead your church in the midst of a violent event. They should have a watchdog instinct, remain calm in a crisis, and be confident in their abilities to fend off intruders. Retired members of law enforcement or the military are ideal members for safety committees. You may also consider asking risk management professionals to advise your committee. Also remember, you’ll want the members of the safety committee to be willing to attend occasional meetings and offer their services at your church events.
Once the safety committee is established, brainstorm security priorities for your church campus and members. Here are some key questions to present to the committee:
- What are the main risks for our church and its worshippers?
- How can we keep our members safe amidst the risks?
- How should we respond to questionable visitors that make us feel like something just isn’t right?
- What should our members do during a violent crisis?
- Do we need advanced security training?
As your safety committee goes to work, focus on the threats that are most pertinent to your church. Create a security plan that remedies your specific vulnerabilities: Does your food pantry serve several members of the community who are mentally ill? Are you in an area that’s prone to gang violence? Does your church have several entrances that are difficult to secure? Think about what’s most important to your church and make sure you address those issues first. (The Department of Homeland Security offers an emergency planning guide specifically for churches here.)
Keep in mind, you can instruct your church’s safety committee to delve into a wide variety of safety concerns - not just violent events. They could look at other security risks and safety concerns like property damage, theft, natural disaster preparedness, child safety, hazards within church buildings, and other potential issues.
Preparing Worshippers to Respond
The goal of a church security plan is not to scare members into vigilance. It’s just the opposite; letting worshippers know that you have a plan creates an environment where everybody feels safe and protected.
Once you have the team together, introduce the safety committee to the church. Then, when they finalize their work, share it with your congregation. Let worshippers know the overall safety plan and give them instructions regarding their actions during a violent crisis. Post instructions in several places around your church campus, especially in high-risk areas like classrooms. Put your plan into practice and hold safety drills periodically throughout the year. You may also want to invite local law enforcement members or other security professionals to observe your drills or host informational seminars for your members throughout the year.
Striking a Balance
No one can deny the rise in violence that’s happening in our country. The possibility of violent events in our churches cannot be ignored. Even so, our churches are still relatively safe. Should we be securing our church buildings like military bases and turning away people with hearts for Jesus? Not exactly.
There is a balance between safety and open ministry. Your church will have to work hard to find it, but it’s there. Author Jeff Hanna sums it up this way: “Ask yourself the question, ‘Is there a way to do this ministry safer than we have been?’ Then be ready to handle the worst by responding with your best, and trust God completely.”
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