Church Security in a Dangerous World: How Will You Protect Parishioners?
Having a church security and safety plan is no longer optional. Whether you lead a megachurch in the city or a small congregation in a rural area, you must be prepared for a wide range of emergency situations. The scourge of mass shootings in the United States is certainly a key reason to bulk up your security. But random, violent attacks — like what occurred at churches in Sutherland Springs and Charleston and at a synagogue in Pittsburgh — aren’t the only threat.
By meeting Christ’s mission of opening doors wide to welcome the community, your place of worship also makes itself vulnerable to “bad actors” who intend harm. News articles remind us that the threat of child abuse looms in Sunday school classrooms, youth groups, and events held on or off church property. Health emergencies occur from time to time, usually without warning. And church facilities aren’t immune from natural disasters, fires, vandalism, fraud, racist attacks, protesters and more. Churches have the responsibility to vet each volunteer, conduct risk assessments, act swiftly to render aid and minister to anyone who suffers harm.
In this era of lockdowns and suspicions, how should the church prepare for and respond to danger? How do pastors and other church leaders balance the need to maintain access to facilities with the need to protect parishioners, staff, visitors and property? Each church safety plan will look a bit different, but all houses of worship and Christian programs must consider several essential points.
Areas to Assess for a Church Security and Safety Plan
After high-profile church shootings, headlines declared Sunday morning the “most dangerous” time in America. But that doesn’t have to be the case. By taking steps to safeguard every church member and visitor, you can head off church violence and make God’s house what it’s supposed to be: a sanctuary.
When your church leadership drafts a security plan, consider these four areas:
1. Security Team
During discussions about the physical security of churches and worship centers, the topic of guns often arises. Should a church security officer or Sunday school security guards carry weapons? If you hire off-duty law enforcement personnel or have volunteers with police experience, what policies will you set for using force?
The debate about firearms in a church setting varies depending on your part of the country, your church’s size and setting, and your area’s previous experiences with intruders. Some church ushers pack heat, while congregants with concealed-carry permits might bring a gun to church along with a Bible.
No matter your church’s policy on weapons, a security team is a must. Whether you partner with local police, hire security officers or use volunteer guards, those individuals must be well-equipped and trained. And make sure they are trained to perform CPR and use an AED.
You may want to identify the members of your church security team, such as with red lanyards or badges, so people know where to turn in case of emergency. Other security personnel can remain undercover, stationed at posts throughout the church campus.
If your church security team members are volunteers, rotate them so they don’t miss worship. Always post one person at each entrance, where they can double as greeters. Also make sure all security cameras have coverage while people are on campus.
Experts say maintaining “visible deterrence” goes a long way in safeguarding people at church. Instead of frightening people away, security efforts reassure everyone about being able to worship in peace, without worry.
2. Security Training at Church
No matter who staffs your church’s safety team, thorough and ongoing training is a must. Ministry leaders and security assistants must stay current on protocols for a variety of situations. They also must be up to speed on recommended precautions, recognize any specific targets, communicate swiftly, and be skilled at diverting any potential threat.
Consult with denominational officials, neighboring congregations and local police departments for best practices and resources. “Just having a concealed-carry permit doesn’t prepare you for what to do in a congregation setting,” says Mike Everett, a church security director. “It’s about the type and quality of training, not just the number of hours.”
In addition to mandatory training sessions, experts recommend conducting mock drills at your church facility — both with and without congregants present. That way you can inform members about visible and hidden security measures, review evacuation plans and point out emergency exits. The goal isn’t to scare church members but to increase awareness and reaction time. Plus, by equipping worshipers to make good decisions and alerting them to resources, you build competence and confidence.
3. Background Checks
One of the most important steps to take regarding church security is conducting background checks on anyone working with minors. Everyone in children’s and youth ministry — paid or volunteer — must have a recent security check, no matter how long they’ve been with the church or program.
When you’re vetting volunteers, realize that some people may take offense at being asked to submit to a background check. They may worry about protecting their own privacy, even with a basic assessment that includes criminal or driving records. Remind people that background checks also protect the volunteers — and the church itself — from liability. To protect vulnerable children, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Child sexual abuse prevention must be top-of-mind for everyone on your church campus. Abuse by pastors and church workers has devastating effects on victims and the church community. Make sure all staff members and volunteers take abuse-prevention classes. Educate children’s and teen ministry workers about staying vigilant to signs of abuse, grooming and other inappropriate behaviors.
Also inform adults about their responsibilities as mandatory reporters of suspected abuse. Consider asking a local therapist to come speak to your team or children’s ministry teachers.
4. Children’s Ministry Precautions
When parents make decisions about Sunday school and the church nursery, they consider how safe their children will be in your care. Take concrete steps that make moms and dads confident about where they leave their kids. For example:
- Have clear check-in and check-out procedures. Release kids only to authorized adults.
- Keep updated notes on file about emergency contact information, allergies and any special needs or situations.
- Use walkie-talkies and/or pagers to help children’s ministry staff communicate with one another and with parents.
- Make sure children’s ministry rooms have windows as well as security cameras.
- Keep doors locked while classes are in session.
- Conduct occasional fire drills, giving children age-appropriate safety tips.
- Use team teachers whenever possible.
- Have extra “floaters” (of both genders) available to assist with bathroom duties and any unexpected situations.
- Adhere to a two-adult policy, ensuring that no adult is ever alone with a child.
- Maintain adequate child-to-adult ratios, especially in the church nursery and in younger-age classrooms.
- Have an Amber Alert type of plan in place if a child happens to go missing while at church.
Church security is no longer a nice-to-have extra. Instead, it’s a priority — and even part of your church’s mission. Using caution doesn’t make churches worldly, according to church security expert Ben O’Neal. Instead, pastors should realize that “if someone gets inside and causes a crisis, it’s going to hurt your ministry and outreach.”
Although churches aren’t immune to violence and security threats, we offer the good news of salvation — and eternal security — through Jesus Christ. And instead of just hoping and praying that churches stay safe, we can take many practical safety measures to shield the flock God puts in our care.
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