Ten Steps to Making Your Church Safer

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.

  1. 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.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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2 Responses to Ten Steps to Making Your Church Safer

  1. Charles Bash says:

    if you have glass doors,and a person with a rifle arrives at the door, the lock will not prevent them from coming in, nor with the sign “no guns allowed”

    • Eric Bonetti says:

      Depends on whether the glass is ballistic rated or shatterproof. But even a bank vault door won’t stop someone with enough firepower. Your goal is to buy as much time as possible and get as many people to safety as you can, as quickly as you can.

      I hope these suggestions may prove useful to you and others.

      EB

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