For years, churches were the one safe place in our communities. Many stood open around the clock to provide quiet places for worship, contemplation, and refuge from the storms of life.
Today, it is a rare church indeed that stays open around the clock. And the recent Texas church shootings, coming on the heels of similar shootings in Knoxville, Charleston, and Ellicott City, underscore the need to be mindful of the risks our churches face and to seek to reduce security threats whenever possible
Of course, no one wants a church that is a fortress. We seek spaces of warmth, love, compassion, and welcome.Still, it is possible to remain an inviting church, yet one with reasonable levels of security. Here are ten steps you can take to make your church safer.
- Take security seriously
How often have you heard, “That wouldn’t happen here,” or “But we’ve never locked that door?” Probably more often that you’d care to admit. But ignorance isn’t bliss, and ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.
Moreover, there is an obligation to protect children, church employees, the elderly, and those who may not be able to respond readily in an emergency. Being safe requires that we reduce threats, both from within the church and from outside the church.
A great first step: Forming a security committee. Many larger churches will have law enforcement personnel as members, who may be able to assist in this area.
2. Get an outside perspective
Many police departments offer free crime prevention surveys that can offer low- or no-cost steps to increasing security. Take advantage of these free resources and get an independent perspective. When I worked as a police officer, I often was surprised at some of the obvious and easily fixed issues I would find when I did security surveys for houses of worship.
3. Control access
Access control has several components. One aspect is securing parts of the building that are not in use. This denies potential perpetrators of sexual or other misconduct privacy, and makes it easier to know what is going on in your facility. This also may limit exposure in the event of a crisis. For instance, if you have a school at your church, classroom doors should be closed and locked (but with two unrelated adults in the room at all times) whenever class is in session. This limits the ability of an active shooter to move quickly from room to room and buys valuable time needed for a police response. Similarly, the destruction wrought by arson may be limited if the arsonist does not have free access to all parts of the building.
Another aspect is knowing who’s in your building at all times. During the week, for instance, a security camera and door buzzer system can limit access to the building to those with a need to be there. And don’t fall prey to buzzing in anyone and everyone; if you don’t recognize the visitor, find out why they are there, and turn them away if you are alone in the building.
Keep in mind, too, that cameras can be a powerful deterrent. When people know that their coming and goings are recorded, it’s a powerful disincentive to crime and misconduct.
Key control also is important. Not only do most churches have next to no key control, but police officers will tell you how very predictable hidden keys are. Every bad guy and his twin brother knows to look in furniture outside the sacristy or the church office, for instance.
One person, possibly a vestry member, should have lockup duties after each service. This includes checking windows, which may be unlocked during services by persons wanting to return to the building later, checking interior and exterior doors, arming any alarm systems, and checking for things like toilets that may have overflowed during services.
Lastly, your church should never be open 24/7 via an access control system, a keybox outside the entrance, or other means. Having such an arrangement is an open invitation to those who need privacy to engage in untoward activities. Whether it’s as simple as a place to drink or smoke pot, or as serious as a place to be alone with a child, you are asking for trouble if you provide round-the-clock access to your building.
4. Provide emergency responders with plans to the building
This may seem like an odd suggestion, but many police departments have to ability to store building blueprints and transmit them electronically to responding units in the event of a crisis. That can make a big difference to law enforcement officers who may struggle to know where your clergy offices are located, your sacristy, or other sensitive areas when called upon to do so in an emergency.
5. Arrange to discreetly get help in a hurry
Many members of the clergy and church staff members have had awkward or difficult encounters with persons in need who come to churches looking for help, yet may struggle with mental illness or substance abuse. In addition, there are times where clergy meeting behind closed doors may need someone else in the room, or to simply politely end a meeting.
In such cases, having a signal worked out in advance can be helpful. In one church with which I am familiar, for instance, the rector signals the parish administrator to call for help by using the intercom and saying, “Would you let Mrs. Jones know I’m running a few minutes late?”
Needless to say, clergy and church employees should never conduct meetings without at least one other person within earshot. And clergy who are LGBT, alone with youth, or otherwise susceptible to charges of misconduct, should be especially careful, giving consideration to meeting with their office door open, or with another member of the clergy present.
6. Pay attention to risk factors
Risk factors may be relatively minor, like a sudden increase in vandalism, or they may be significant, like threatening phone calls due to involvement in social justice issues. Take these seriously, and let the police know right away.
Consider, too, that some risk factors that are major red flags for police officers may go unrecognized by church members. For instance, you may consider graffiti on your building nothing more than an annoyance, yet a sudden increase in graffiti is, statistically speaking, closely associated with an increased likelihood of arson. So when in doubt, let police know.
7. Use multiple layers of security
When I was a police officer, I marveled at how often churches would have security alarm systems, but shoddy physical security. Or vice versa. Or great security systems and features, but these were left unused.
The reality is a great alarm system is almost useless without adequate locks and other physical security. Locksets, for example, which are door knobs with keyholes in the middle, are basically nothing more than privacy locks. Even with an alarm system covering the premises, your average intruder can be in, out, and long-gone before police respond. Conversely, mammoth door locks won’t do much if criminals have unlimited time alone to work on the lock, which is where an alarm system and surveillance cameras come in handy.
Also, don’t leave alarm systems off during times when the building is empty. If, for example, you have a mid-day service on Sunday and a 5 PM service, it is a surefire bet that anyone considering burglarizing or vandalizing your church will learn of your routine in short order. Same goes for interior signs that announce that interior alarm systems are on or off—a bad guy treats a sign saying that the alarm system is disarmed as the equivalent of an engraved invitation to burglarize your church.
8. Consider locking the building during services
This sounds unfriendly, I know. But it can prevent people from slipping in and grabbing purses during communion, and buy time for ushers to size up visitors. Particularly if your church has glass doors, there’s nothing wrong with having an usher there, smiling and holding the door open in situations that are clearly non-threatening, yet keeping it otherwise locked.
9. Train your ushers
Good ushers not only provide a warm welcome, but they can serve an important security function. The latter includes responding to parishioners who may be having health or other crises, ensuring that one usher is always at the door and able to observe what is going on in the nave/sanctuary, and keeping a watchful eye for signs of trouble. Indicators that trouble may be in the offing are persons who are dressed inappropriately for the weather, are visibly agitated, those who may have odd lumps or bulges under exterior clothing, or who may be looking around in an anxious and inappropriate manner. Another potential giveaway: Unknown vehicles loitering near the church, or in the parking lot during services, with persons inside.
Ushers also should be aware of persons who may be subject to restraining orders or other potential indicators of violence. The sad reality is almost every church sooner or later has a member who has a restraining order against a family member or ex. In cases where a violation may be imminent, there is nothing wrong with calling police before things get out of hand.
10. Have a plan
Last but not least, have a written security plan. What would you do, for example, if a gunman burst into your church during services? Would you have means to notify your nursery so it could go into lockdown? Or what would you do if a noncustodial parent tried to remove a child from the building?
Another tricky one is persons who are nominally in the building to worship, but may actually be looking for a place to spend the night, or to see if there are small portable objects that can be carried off. More than one church has had a member get up during services to go to the bathroom, only to discover someone unknown in the halls, rattling doorknobs.
Consider, too, that church members may not readily recognize crime when they see it. In one church I attended, for instance, I observed a woman using prototypical techniques to try to pick pockets during coffee hours. Yet members were offended when I offered her a plate of food and a cup of coffee and walked her to the door, never realizing I had just watched her take wallets from two unsuspecting parishioners.
In conclusion, you can’t eliminate every threat, and doing so is not desirable. But there is a lot you can do to make your church or other house of worship a self, welcoming place for all persons.
In this post, I want to explore how churches heal after clergy misconduct. Specifically, I want to explore the questions, “What does it take for a church to heal? How can church officials help a church heal?”
First, an important disclaimer, which is that misconduct comes in many forms. In a faith too often obsessed with sex, we tend to think of clergy misconduct as inherently sexual in nature. White it is essential that we not minimize the harm caused by clergy sexual misconduct, the reality is that the vast majority of clergy misconduct takes other forms. These include relational, emotional, financial, and spiritual.
Spiritual abuse is particularly troubling, as it is often difficult for adjudicatories to detect, and often even harder to address. Many times, clergy who engage in spiritual abuse do not engage in a single, serious incident of misconduct. Rather, they engage in a pattern of abuse that consists of seemingly petty slights, power plays, and other insidious misconduct. Taken individually, they seem minor, but when viewed as pattern, they are anything but.
Because clergy misconduct can cover such a broad spectrum, it’s also important to recognize that parishioners often don’t realize that they have been abused. In such cases, it often is only after a clergy person leaves or retires that they realize just how unhealthy things have become. Indeed, in some cases, patterns of unhealthy behavior may persist for decades after an abusive clergy person no longer serves a particular church.
It is the latter paradigm that is key to understanding how churches heal. Specifically, just as conflict ignored is conflict multiplied, so too do very few churches heal on their own. Instead, they must bring in outside help, who can assist in building and implementing strategies for recovery.
Thus, in churches that are hierarchical in nature, like The Episcopal Church, diocesan authorities must intervene when there has been clergy misconduct. In denominations that are congregational in polity, regional officers may be able to provide assistance. But in all cases, outside help is essential.
In such cases, it is essential that the truth be uncovered. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” is not only biblical, but it is one of the great truths of human psychology. We must know the truth, explore the truth, and understand our own role in misconduct.
The latter is a point with many subtleties. On the one hand, there is one great truth in cases of clergy abuse, which is that clergy always are responsible for maintaining boundaries. There is no exception to this; “they made me do it,” or “she came onto me,” never cut it. Again, clergy always are responsible for maintaining appropriate boundaries.
That said, parishioners may feel complicit for not speaking out against abusive clergy. They may have benefited from positions of power and influence under an abusive priest. Or they may feel remorse for not having recognized the abuse. In other cases, they may have unwittingly taken the side of an abusive member of the clergy, and thus feel that they aided and abetted in the misconduct. Still others may regret having turned their backs on friends in the midst of the conflict that inevitably erupts when allegations of clergy misconduct arise.
These are normal reactions, and their implications are magnified by the hurt, pain and betrayal that parishioners feel when they learn of clergy misconduct.
The only way for congregations to move past the trauma is to talk openly about it in a moderated, safe environment. Participants must know that their views will be respected, even if others may not agree. They need to know that they will be loved and cared for, and that pastoral care is available. And they need to feel safe in moving at their own pace; there is nothing more counterproductive than insisting that those struggling with their hurt and pain “move on.”
As part of this process, diocesan officials must disclose the misconduct. While there is a right to privacy, and legal counsel must be involved to avoid charges of defamation and other legal issues, it is important that parishioners know enough about the misconduct to be able to process it, heal, and move on. This need is reflected in the Episcopal disciplinary canons, which provide that the bishop diocesan may disclose confidential aspects of disciplinary proceedings if necessary, while considering carefully the privacy rights of all parties involved.
Thus, most parishes require at least one parish-wide meeting, and some will require multiple such facilitated meetings in order to move towards healing.
It also is worth noting that people must feel free to not attend such meetings, for there will be some who simply are not ready to do so. Additionally, while such meetings should be limited to parishioners only, it may be useful to invite those who have left the church due to clergy misconduct to attend, as well as those (like parish employees), who may not be members, but have also been hurt by the misconduct.
In all of this, there is an important corollary, which is that simply removing clergy who have been accused of misconduct without more is gravely injurious to a parish. Ignoring an issue almost never results in healing, but instead may be seen by parishioners as minimizing the hurt and pain of clergy misconduct. Even if the alleged misconduct did not directly involve the parish, the departure of a much-loved clergy person will inevitably bring with it feelings of loss and betrayal. And when a diocese or other adjudicatory removes clergy as part of a disciplinary proceeding, failing to help the affected community move towards health and wholeness is itself a betrayal, and likely will result in diocesan officials being viewed as high-handed or arbitrary.
In addition, my experience is that an inadequate response by church officials may result in waves of follow-on conflict among those affected. Such conflict may spread and pull in others who otherwise not be affected by the misconduct.
Of course, the healing process also must be handled with great care and sensitivity. Announcements about clergy misconduct must be made in a way that allows time for members of the community to process the news, and to choose whether to participate in the process. Announcements should not, under any circumstances, be made at regularly scheduled worship services.
Lastly, it is essential that victims of clergy misconduct see that their concerns are taken seriously and addressed. For instance, they may wonder what will become of their church, or how long an interim will serve. While there may not be clear answers to these and similar questions, church officials must share as much information as they can. With this in mind, it is useful and appropriate for church officials to “loop back” with victims of clergy misconduct, and to let them know that they may call, visit, or write any time they have questions, concerns or comments.
A final comment: The purpose of this article is to help those who have been affected by clergy misconduct. It is not intended to address any particular church or situation.
Note from editor: This article was written by the Rev. Stephen Parsons a retired priest in the Church of England and an expert on abusive churches, and is reposted with permission. Visit his wonderful blog at http://www.survivingchurch.org.
My hope is that persons who attend churches in which love for one another is conditional — whether that involves behaving in a certain way, not complaining of abuse, or any other factor — will take a deep breath and ask the tough question, “Is my church an abusive church?”
And if you are a member of a church who conditions your love and acceptance of others, what might that say about your faith?
When I began my study of the phenomenon of abusive churches some 20 years ago, there was no conceptual model around to help me see what might be going on in these communities. Two questions loomed large. One was why anyone would want to attend a church where they might come to harm. The second question was why there should be Christian leaders prepared to exploit their followers. My reading over the years has helped me towards answers to both these questions. While I obviously cannot rehearse all these answers in a short blog, I wanted today to share a very helpful model that I came across as I struggled to begin to understand the mystery of church abuse. One very helpful book that I came across early in my studies was entitled Righteous Religion. This book likened and compared the church to a human family. Just as the good healthy family allows the children to flourish and grow to maturity in a safe, secure environment, so a dysfunctional family cramps and restricts the personalities of the children through a regime of fear, control and coercion. The same contrast can be found in churches. Some allow their members to grow to spiritual maturity while others control the development of their members so that there is little in the way of spiritual flourishing or joy.
In describing two models of family, church or human, Righteous Religion describes the difference between conditional and unconditional love. Conditional love is the kind that is only offered when a child (parishioner) pleases the parent by a rigid conformity to the parent’s wishes and desires. Unconditional love on the other hand, is one that allows a child to grow through mistakes as well as pursue his or her own interests. There is never too much in the way of control over these emerging events. The love that is expressed for the child will never be destroyed however much the child may appear to rebel and chafe against the discipline of living in a family.
The positive experience of church for many people is much like the experience of growing up in a family. Some things that a family offers are also offered by a church. A human family offers (or should offer) protection, love, food, shelter, and education. Although these needs are not precisely the same as those offered by a church, a growing child might well understand a church as being like a second home. The church will be an important part of the way that a child comes to be socialised and educated in learning to be part of the wider community beyond the home. The church community in turn is a prelude to recognising we are part of a worldwide community. It does not need to be emphasised how important church belonging can play in the rearing of a child.
An abusive church is likely to have much in common with a family where love is conditional. Some styles of Christian teaching seem to imply that God’s love is somehow conditional to our believing and behaving in a defined way. Although most of us find in Scripture the central proclamation that God loves us unconditionally, there are many churches where the message received is that God is preoccupied in punishing eternally those who do not turn to him. It is of course possible to read certain passages in this way but this is not the teaching of the Prodigal Son or the central thrust of Scripture. The model for human families that we applaud is one where love is offered unconditionally. Can we really believe that God is like an angry parent who withholds his love except for those children who successfully negotiate a long narrow list of commands?
The family model that seems to be followed in certain conservative Christian communities is similar to one known in Victorian times. Then the ideal father was one who maintained strict authority through the exercise of fear. This whole process of comparing the church to styles of family life and parenting models is one I have found helpful. Just as we rightly shrink from a model of child-rearing which emphasises terror, fear and threats, so we should also purge church communities of the message that God’s love is withheld from individuals and groups that a minister does not approve of. Exclusion of despised minorities was never something that Jesus did. We also should uphold at every point the message that God includes all and that it is never for us to declare that his love is anything other than unconditional.
Yesterday’s lectionary reading was about forgiveness. That brings up the question: In cases of abuse by clergy, is forgiveness always possible or even desirable? Based on my own experiences with an abusive member of the clergy, I think the answer is mixed.
To be sure, forgiveness is always desirable. By forgiving the other person, the injured person frees himself to move on. He or she lets go of hurt and anger and moves toward healing. This outcome has very little to do with the person who caused the harm, but instead is all about protecting oneself against further pain and suffering.
When it comes to clergy abuse, however, the very nature of the relationship between clergy and laity makes the path to forgiveness arduous. Any betrayal of that trust by clergy — whether the abuse is spiritual, emotional, sexual, physical or relational — can have profound implications for the victim and his or her sense of self. In addition, the abuse inevitably implicates the victim’s spiritual and emotional lives, often resulting in lasting harm. Indeed, it is well documented that victims frequently suffer PTSD and other stress and anxiety disorders. (Spiritual abuse can be particularly devastating, for it typically is difficult for adjudicatories to recognize, and complaints may initially be ignored or dismissed out of hand. This compounds the suffering of victims. My strong suggestion to bishops, canons to the ordinary, and other church officials is to avoid dismissing complaints of clergy misconduct whenever possible.)
One precursor to forgiveness is timely access to justice. With church officials all too often reluctant to address clergy misconduct, victims may not only have to deal with the original harm, but also their own powerlessness as well. It’s also essential that adjudicatories believe victims; in cases of abuse, studies show that the overwhelming majority of complaints are truthful.
Further, the relationship between clergy and their congregations means that victims who tell their stories may be shunned and excluded at church–the very place they should be able to find comfort and healing. For example, one dear friend of mine, now in her eighties, recounts how she was shunned by members of her Episcopal parish for complaining about the rector’s attempts to ruin her marriage. It was not until years later, when it was discovered that dozens of other women had faced similar experiences, that members of her church apologized to her for their conduct. But by that time, the damage had been done, and many of the fractured relationships have never healed.
The story above also illustrates another important issue, which is the breadth of harm caused by abusive clergy. Not only does evidence suggest that the vast majority of clergy abuse go unreported, but in my experience the circle of harm often extends beyond the obvious victims. Even well-intentioned church officials may overlook or fail to fully recognize the vast swath of friends and family who are hurt when clergy misconduct occurs. This is particularly the case with spiritual and emotional abuse, in which initial reports often represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Another precursor to forgiveness is allowing victims the space to process abuse in their own way. Officials who urge victims to “move on,” risk trivializing the pain and suffering of victims. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to attempt to shut down public criticism of the offending clergy, for telling of one’s experience can be therapeutic. And criticizing victims for responding badly to misconduct, as happened recently in one prominent case of clergy abuse, is inevitably counterproductive. The reality is that victims often engage in counterproductive behavior, up to and including suicide. This is not a result of moral failing, but instead of human suffering.
Lastly, for forgiveness to occur, there must be care and support for victims. This may include professional counseling, medication, pastoral care, listening with compassion, and other support. Church officials also need to recognize that victims may spend months, even years, “wandering with intention,” absenting themselves from their church or house of worship. Some may transfer to other parishes, or leave church altogether. But in all these cases, it is incumbent upon church officials to continue to regard victims of abuse with love and concern. And unless someone asks to no longer be considered a church member, victims of abuse should be accorded the same rights and privileges as other church members. In short, being a victim of abuse constitutes good cause to withdraw from involvement in church, and should not be regarded as reflecting badly on victims.
And, of course, prayer is important for all affected by abuse, including abusers and their families.
In conclusion, in cases of clergy abuse, we can never really know whether forgiveness is possible. Nor should we assume that it is, or that we can dictate to survivors when or how they should forgive. We can only offer love, care, and support for those affected by the scourge of clergy abuse and trust that God will work through the situation in the end.