Safety Plans for Places Of Worship

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Do Churches Need “Safety Ministries”?

(This is a topic I’ve written about before, but bears re-examination as attacks on places of worship continue and people of faith are placed in danger.)

News outlets are reporting another attack on a place of worship, this time at a church in White Settlement, Texas, near Fort Worth. In this instance, two congregants were killed before the threat was abolished by armed volunteer members of the church’s security team.

As time goes on, more heinous acts of violence are occurring in what should be sanctuaries for the faithful. There is no place where crowds gather that is immune to the bad intentions of a disgruntled, deranged, or politically-motivated individual.

In the case of the shooting at White Settlement, Texas, a security detail of volunteers was able to end the incident quickly. This was because the folks in the Texas town of 17,000 realized the importance of instilling a culture of situational awareness in our citizenry.

(Aside: Originally put forth by a fighter pilot as a strategy in aerial dogfights, situational awareness has real practical significance in staying safe in uncertain times)

Situational awareness is a state of calm, relaxed observation of factors that might indicate a threat or a need to act. These are called “anomalies”; learning to recognize them can identify suspicious individuals and save lives. It certainly did in the recent incident.

(Learn more about situational awareness in this article)

Unlike the church in Texas, not all congregations prioritize church safety at the level needed in this toxic climate. The premise that a ministry is based on peace fails to take into account that there are those who consider places of worship to be “soft”targets. In this era of active shooters and anti-Christian feeling (or anti-religious feeling in general), pastors must make sure their flock is safe, just like any shepherd. In the New Normal, it’s has become part of the job description.

In my role as medical preparedness writer, it’s my mission to help the average citizen promote the well-being of loved ones in disasters. I’ve written about hurricanes and earthquakes, but shooter events like the one in White Settlement are also instances where mass casualties can occur. As in the recent shooting, these casualties could be minimized with a plan of action.

Small churches should establish a "safety ministry"
Small churches should establish a “safety ministry”

Large churches may choose to hire security professionals and install video surveillance technology. Smaller and less affluent churches, however, might benefit by establishing what I call a “safety ministry“. This group should be comprised of parishioners who have some security experience, such as active and former law enforcement, military veterans, and carefully selected others. Members should evaluate the layout of the church and grounds for weak spots and organize a plan of action for calling 911 and other measures when needed.

Training goals might best be accomplished with the cooperation and assistance of local police. They can help train church members in how to identify the behavior of possible perpetrators of violence. The pastoral staff should be actively involved in this training to assess liability issues that might arise, and to insure that the safety ministry is not perceived as a “goon squad”.

The call for volunteers for such a ministry should be made publicly and their purpose should be frankly (but calmly) explained so as to emphasize their benefits to all those attending the church. The formation of a security group in private might otherwise tend to cause concern instead of reassurance.

A simple way to avoid or abort acts of violence in places of worship is the placement of friendly but visible “greeters” or ushers at church entrances. These people can look for anomalies, such as someone inappropriately dressed for the weather. If a person seeking entry is wearing an overcoat in hot weather, it could be because they are concealing a weapon. Having greeters outside could also make it easier to identify those acting nervously, loitering in the parking lot, or otherwise exhibiting suspicious behavior.

Safety ministry personnel should have the ability to close and lock doors to prevent a gunman from entering. Conversely, they can also open all the exits that could be used to direct congregants out of harm’s way when necessary. Ushers can also look for packages left behind that might hide an explosive device.

First Aid Kits like the one above should be on the premises

In an active shooter event, multiple casualties are incurred, leaving wounded and bleeding victims at the scene. Safety Ministry personnel should have training on how to stop bleeding and equipment such as first aid kits geared to help them accomplish this goal. The number and sophistication of such kits may depend on the number and level of training of parishioners. Indeed, the church might consider arranging such training for their entire congregation.

Although this article is geared towards security during services, a plan of action should be organized for other times during the week as well, and certainly for youth group meetings and other activities sponsored by the church.

Of course, the question is: Should non-professional security personnel be armed? I have an opinion (yes), but I can’t give your place of worship the answer. This is a decision that must be made taking local laws, risk levels, and the wishes of the congregation into consideration.

Sadly, I envision a future where safety ministries are standard operating procedure for our places of worship. Additionally, I predict that first aid kits will be fixtures along with fire extinguishers on the walls of every place where crowds gather.

It may be a major challenge to protect people of faith these days, but preparing for untoward events should be the responsibility of every pastor and congregant. With a plan of action, they’ll have the best chance to keep our churches safe in the uncertain future.

Joe Alton MD

Joe Alton MD

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