By John Boch
Ultimately, when seconds count, help is just minutes away. This applies for police emergencies, as well as fire and medical. And in places with large numbers of people, those present become first responders, whether they want that role or not.
I've attended a number of church security seminars and courses. Some themes consistently appear in the curricula when it comes to church members volunteering to help their fellow parishioners in emergencies. Especially for places of worship, considering starting a new safety program. For those with existing programs, here are some points you may not have considered.
For those without safety teams, maybe some of these points can make it into practice by key individuals on an informal basis. Even that could make a difference if the worst happens. Ultimately, if they save lives or prevent a violent incident or three, that counts as a win for the good guys.
Select the right people
Churches have to be careful about who serves in a formal or semi-formal role providing church security. These persons should be level-headed and fairly well-trained outside of using a gun so they have tools at their disposal other than that gun on their hip. You know the old expression, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I’ll also add a caveat even there. I know a few firearms instructors who try to offer “church security” coursework, but frankly, it tends to be long on the least likely-to-be-used techniques (gun) and short on the not-so-glamorous stuff (de-escalation skills) that will keep situations from becoming gunfights to begin with.
Naming your church’s team
It may seem trivial, but the first order of business will be to name your church’s team. “Church Safety Team” sounds helpful and innocuous to the most folks. It avoids the topic of security for those who would rather bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the need for security (armed or otherwise) in a house of worship. Meanwhile, everyone supports safety.
Selecting the members
While a lot of folks seem willing to wear a concealed firearm to protect against the high profile attacks, that doesn’t mean they're well-suited to protecting those outside themselves and their immediate family.
The last thing any church wants is an untrained, inexperienced or ill-tempered church “security” person pulling a gun on someone inappropriately over a mildly heated child custody dispute in the daycare area. Or having a negligent or accidental discharge.
Anything like the above will drive off members about as quickly as a pastor getting arrested for child sex abuse.
So while anyone should be able to carry to protect themselves and their loved ones, entrusting “just anyone” with a gun to represent your church on the security or safety team is a risky proposition at best.
Safety team training can (and should) include these topics among others: situational awareness, communications, basic to intermediate first aid/CPR/AED, verbal de-escalation techniques, physical “de-escalation” (including both restraint techniques and take-down techniques), and perhaps lastly, the final thing: the gun.
Everyone on the safety team doesn’t have to know everything, of course. For example, recruit church member paramedics, EMTs or other medical types to handle medical issues.
Even seasoned citizens serving as greeters can play a crucial role on a church safety team, too.
Watching for dangers
Frankly, the most dangerous place at church is the parking lot. Robberies happen there, as can domestic violence incidents where an aggrieved partner (spouse, BF/GF, estranged, or whatever) brings the domestic drama to the church property because he/she knows the church member will be there on Sunday mornings.
Furthermore, limit access to the church itself by keeping the secondary entrances locked. You might even consider locking the primary entrance doors a few minutes after services begin. A safety team member can admit any late-comers, but making entry difficult will help thwart lunatics, criminals or other evil-doers.
Make the door greeters part of the safety team by giving them radios along with the rest of the safety team. They will serve as an extra set of eyes as they welcome parishioners. Their mission? Spot suspicious behavior, anything out of the norm as part of situational awareness.
How will greeters and team members know what is suspicious? This primarily involves identifying anything outside of the baseline of normalcy for a given environment, and giving those things additional scrutiny.
Obviously, they and other team members should watch for signs of domestic or child abuse. If detected, at the very least, maintain a heightened awareness near those persons in case the abuser shows up on the property.
At the same time, all team members should be drilled on guiding congregation members to safety in event of a fire, weather or medical emergency, as well as a potential security issue.
Learn those books and live them and you’ll be ahead of 99.44% of people in identifying potential threats long before they become real problems. Identifying issues at a distance gives the good guys options and options mean increased safety.
Once your team leaders have familiarized themselves with these two books, they can train fellow greeters, ushers and safety team members on the things to look for so they can alert others through the radio network when they see someone or something suspicious.
Not only that, but as part of de-escalation, if a potential bad guy gives off pre-violence indicators, church safety team members can preemptively go hands-on as needed with greater confidence.
Remember, though, unless you worship in Baghdad, you will encounter far more medical issues than “security” situations. Having people on hand who can handle both will allow church members and leaders feel more comfortable and safe.
Don’t forget weekday events
Larger churches will also host events, breakout groups and study sessions throughout the week. As volunteer safety team staffing allows, having one or two team members present for those events will keep people safer at those times as well. The Charleston church shooting happened on a Wednesday evening.
Remember those parking lots. Keep the exterior well-lit and the doors secure. Especially after dark.
Lastly, consider formal instruction from an expert. For those in the Midwest, I strongly recommend Tom Whitaker from the St. Louis area.
After a lunatic killed his pastor during a church service, he organized his church to implement a safety team, drawing on a decade or more of training and professional experience. He’s the real deal and an outstanding instructor.
He does church security training to save lives and keep good people safe. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Tell him I sent you his way.
There are other top-notch church security trainers all across America. Ask around to find a good one if your church seeks outside expert help. Even for those churches who think they have a good handle on their security, an outside perspective might prove quite worthwhile.
Lastly, if you have a chance to go see Lt. Col. Dave Grossman doing one of his church security seminars, send some of your key people. It’s worth every penny.
Ultimately, it's up to church members to keep their flocks safe. Because when seconds count, police are just minutes away.