Protect your congregation by assessing the risk, communicating a plan and training regularly.
Houses of worship have a long history of providing sanctuary and safety to members and those in need. However, in recent years, more churches, synagogues, mosques and temples have questioned their safety due to the widespread publicity of mass shootings and attacks at religious centers across the country. Security has become a hot topic for congregations of all faiths, but the process of choosing and implementing new measures can be difficult and overwhelming. If your center is considering upgrading its security, keep these three steps in mind: assess, communicate and train.
According to FBI statistics, only 4% of mass shootings in the U.S. during the past decade were located at worship centers. In separate reports, roughly 4% of all hate crimes in the country between 2010-2017 occurred at a church, synagogue, mosque or temple.
We give you these statistics not to scare you, but in an attempt to put your risk in perspective. It’s important to assess your center’s risk and to tailor your approach to security accordingly. These FBI stats are a good start, but they don’t tell the whole story.
Your risk can be affected by several factors. Your house of worship might be at greater risk depending on its location, size and services offered. It’s important to take all of these into consideration before developing your security plan.
Utilize free resources
There are a number of free resources for faith communities considering upgrading their security programs. A few are listed below.
FEMA offers worship centers webinars, trainings and in-depth planning guides on their website.
The Anti-Defamation League has published its guide for Jewish organizations on its website, but its advice could be applied to other worship centers as well.
For mosques wanting to assess their risk, the American Civil Liberties Union has created a map of anti-Mosque activity in the U.S.
There are federal grants available to worship centers that can assist in paying for security. Some states offer similar grants to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. You can usually apply for these grants by visiting the state or federal agency’s website or Grants.gov.
Lean on law enforcement
It’s always great to get advice from the experts, so work on developing a relationship with local law enforcement. You may already have members who are current or former police, firefighters or EMTs who can help make introductions.
If possible, ask police to assist you in assessing your center and determining what measures are needed to improve its security. They’ll be able to spot weaknesses that you might have missed. They might even be able to suggest or offer training for common scenarios including disruptive visitors and domestic violence.
Ed Stetzer, writing for ChristianityToday.com, also suggests hosting law enforcement events such as drills or benefits at your worship center as it “allows police to become familiar with your building in case of emergency.”
Get membership buy-in
Changes aren’t always easy. While installing video cameras and contracting security guards increase protection for your members, it could also upset them. It’s important to have an open dialogue with your congregation about your center’s security plan so that they feel involved and endorse the new changes. Concerns over privacy and the community’s perception of your worship center need to be addressed before implementing new security measures.
Make the plan known
It may seem counterproductive to announce your security plan and have it posted where anyone can view it, but it’s important for a variety of reasons.
First, you want your members to know what to do in case of an emergency. Having a well-informed and prepared congregation can help save lives.
Second, making your security plan public helps to deter crime. Criminals look for soft targets. By demonstrating that you’ve put security in place, your worship center becomes a hard target, discouraging criminals from attempting an attack.
Whether you outsource security to a contractor or use volunteers, the roles and responsibilities of the team need to be communicated to them and the congregation. Members need to know what is appropriate and what to expect from their security officers. As WorshipFacilities.com explains:
“A person with no security background might see an officer is just standing around and ask her to help carry something, go get someone etc. When an officer says no, this can create dissention based on a misunderstanding. If the [worship center] is reminded that they would not ask a child care worker to leave the kids to go help put up chairs, they can see that asking an on-duty officer to help with a non-security related task is just as inappropriate.”
Along with responsibilities, the ADL recommends communicating a succession plan. If a volunteer security team member is absent, or becomes incapacitated during an event, assign another member to take on their duties.
Know the signs
There is no way to prevent an active shooter event. However, there are signs that can indicate increased risk. In over half of mass shootings, the attacker targeted and killed a partner or family member. In nearly 20% of mass shootings in churches in the past 50 years, the attacker targeted at least one family member. These statistics indicate that domestic violence tends to “spill over” into public spaces, including houses of worship.
Train your leaders and security team on how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse. Empower leaders to speak frankly to members about domestic violence, offering assistance and resources to those who may be vulnerable while holding abusers accountable.
Establish guidelines for appropriate force
Not all threats will demand the same response. A disruptive visitor or a heated argument between members may be resolved with a lighter touch. Establish clear guidelines for your security team on the measures of force to be used in different situations. Role playing less critical scenarios can help teams recognize the level of force expected.
If a security guard does demonstrate force they consider necessary, you’ll want to be protected your team and your organization from potential law suits. Adding security enforcement liability coverage to your organization’s insurance policy can help pay for legal fees if a claim is filed against your security team.
Practice with drills
Don’t forget to train your members. Running lockdown and evacuation drills routinely keep members informed on what to do and when.
Unfortunately, faith-based organizations aren’t immune to threats of violence. There is no guaranteed way to prevent violence towards your members and worship center, but you can proactively prepare them in case of an event. Assess what is needed, communicate the plan and train on an ongoing basis.
Some worship centers are exploring new ways to grow and survive, including merging congregations. If you are considering a merger, keep these tips in mind.