A secure church is critical to effective ministry today. This safety guide helps to ensure you’re on the right path to creating a safe sanctuary.
Prepared and Aware
One beautiful Sunday morning, hundreds of people were filing into our second service. I was positioned in our auditorium watching families find seats when I heard the first radio call.
“We may have a situation in the children’s area.”
I recognized the calm but assertive voice of a fellow security team member, and I knew by his tone something wasn’t right. As I entered the hallway, our head of security grabbed my elbow and asked that I get to our surveillance camera room immediately to “get eyes on” what was happening.
The situation unfolding was an estranged father attempting to see his kids despite a restraining order preventing him from doing so.
What’s his plan? Is he trying to take the kids? Is he here to confront his wife? Does he have a weapon? Should we call the police? Those questions were running through my mind as I searched the monitors, trying to identify him in the crowd.
It’s More Common Than You Think
If you think the situation that played out at our church seems like an isolated case, you’re mistaken. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an average of 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute. This equates to more than 10 million abuse victims annually. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center’s numbers, there are somewhere around 900,000 restraining orders issued per year.
Churches often attract people in the highs and lows of life. And it’s during those lows that people bring to church their struggles, addictions, and yes, even threats of violence. The church is faced with the difficult task of delicately balancing the need to minister to people in crisis while also protecting those entrusted to our care.
When the father asked to see the kids that morning, the children’s ministry volunteer politely explained that he’d need the child check-in ticket. When he protested, she politely explained that our policies existed for the protection of his kids and that he could surely appreciate we had their best interests at heart.
He left the children’s ministry area and walked into the auditorium without further incident.
Of all the things that could have gone horribly wrong, here’s what went right.
- The volunteer was alert. The children’s ministry volunteer saw a problem when the father asked to take his kids but didn’t have the check-in ticket.
- The notification system worked. The volunteer discreetly notified a member of the security team, which prompted the radio call.
- Security was able to monitor the situation in real time. We had surveillance cameras in place, which gave us the ability to locate the father and verify he was someone we had a restraining order on file for.
- The security plan worked. The cameras allowed us to position security members within a few rows of where the man was sitting and also to position a security team member near his wife.
- Everyone was safe. Security discreetly escorted the wife and her children to their vehicle once the service concluded.
- We followed proper reporting procedures. Finally, we notified the authorities, and the local police took it from there.
Like a well-practiced team, in this case, every person knew what to do and when to do it. While several people were involved, the key player was our astute children’s ministry volunteer. Her training, calm demeanor, and quick actions potentially averted what could’ve been a very serious situation.
Another Safety Concern
On another Sunday morning, I was standing in the lobby near the front door. The service was in progress, and the lobby was essentially empty. All of a sudden, a frantic older woman ran to me. She was out of breath and panicked. “Did he come this way?”
“Who?” I asked.
“The little boy!” she cried.
Through a series of quick questions, I learned the frantic woman was the volunteer for children with special needs. The little boy had intentionally escaped from her.
He hadn’t come my way, which meant he was either hiding inside or, worst case, he’d escaped out a side door. He’d asked to go to the restroom but had instead made a break for the stairwell. I asked for his name and what he was wearing.
“A black-and-white striped shirt,” she said.
I was about to make the radio call to have security put the church on lockdown and establish a perimeter when I saw a flash of black and white heading into the parking lot.
My heart leaped into my throat.
I remember running out the door with another security team member, Damon, on my heels. As we sprinted into the parking lot, we lost sight of the boy. Damon and I split up so he could run down one aisle and I could run down another. About 25 yards ahead of me, a small blonde head darted between rows, heading directly for the highway. I radioed Damon to say I could see him and that I was going to cut him off. Working together, Damon and I finally closed the gap. I caught the little guy by the arm at the far end of the parking lot.
Now put yourself in the position of an 11-year-old boy with autism for a moment. How would you react if some strange man came running toward you and grabbed you by the arm? You got it. He was terrified. I kept repeating his name and reassuring him he was okay. Damon wisely suggested sitting cross-legged on the pavement to get on the boy’s level. To our surprise, he sat on Damon’s lap and immediately calmed down. The next challenge was to return him to class. After a lot of unproductive coaxing from us, we arrived at the creative solution of giving him a piggyback ride all the way back.
Phew! Crisis averted.
This was another situation that could have had tragic consequences, but luckily a lot of things went right.
- The volunteer sought immediate help. She didn’t attempt to look for the child on her own but involved the security team immediately to aid in the search.
- The volunteer communicated clearly. The volunteer had a description of the child and was able to communicate location.
- The safety plan worked. The security team had practiced a lost-child emergency plan on multiple occasions: The first step is to establish a perimeter around the church. It was that step that prompted me to look out the window, where I saw the boy running toward the parking lot.
- The security communication system was effective. Damon and I communicated via two-way radios, plus we could communicate with the rest of the security team about the situation.
- Parent communication worked. Lastly, using the child check-in number on the back of the boy’s shirt, we called the parent and reunited the two.
The duration of this event, from the first notification to the three of us sitting in the parking lot, was only a matter of minutes. It happened that fast. You hate to think what could have occurred if the volunteer had been delayed or if we didn’t have a plan in place for just such a circumstance.
It Can Happen in Your Church
These—and other—situations can happen in any church, including yours. They may cause you to question your church’s policies, procedures, and preparedness. How would you handle these situations? Would volunteers have known what to do? Would you have had the same outcomes?
As someone who spends a lot of time training and working with church security teams, my experience is that most churches have emergency plans living somewhere in a dusty binder or possibly in one person’s head. The plans aren’t well known, and they haven’t been widely practiced. But believe me, it’s far better to identify and work through potential security issues long before you’re fully immersed in the chaos of a major threat or situation.
Threats and Security
Whether you’re focused on the security of your ministry or your church as a whole, there are common risks we must be aware of. Regardless of size or location, churches are at higher risk for threats because they are often “soft targets,” or relatively unprotected and vulnerable to anything from vandalism to an outright attack.
Today’s environment demands that church and ministry leaders take action to protect people to the best of our abilities. That includes collaborating with outside sources such as law enforcement, fire departments, and security experts. Consider the following issues, how they apply to your ministry, and how your leadership team can develop a comprehensive security plan.
Most Common Threats
These are the most common safety and security issues churches must prepare for:
- Threats to adult and child safety.
- Child molestation and abductions.
- Domestic disputes, fights, and other disturbances.
- Theft and vandalism.
- Drugs or alcohol.
- Parking lot safety issues.
- Active-shooter threats.
- Bomb threats.
Basic Building Security Measures
Building security measures are critical to your church’s basic security. Especially for smaller churches, these simple safety measures are key. Additionally, invite your local law enforcement and fire department to walk through your church to evaluate your building security gaps.
- Ensure barriers and fences protecting the property are intact and functional.
- Check that all doors are secure with functional locking mechanisms. Ensure exit doors remain secure at all times and that traffic flow is routed through secure pathways.
- Ensure all windows are secured and locked.
- Check that lighting in parking areas and outside the building is adequate.
- Ensure the phone system is functional with landlines in key locations.
Protective measures are key to safety and security. However, criminal deterrence is also one of the most important aspects of any security effort. Effective deterrence happens when you broadcast security measures in place to discourage criminal behavior. Here are basic ways to beef up your deterrence effort.
- Presence: If you have a security team, ensure their presence is obvious every time people are on the property.
- Communication: Post information about the security and communications systems in use on the property. For instance, if you have an emergency call box available, post signs designating its location. Or post emergency numbers guests can call for assistance.
- Advertise Readiness: Post signage throughout your building and at entrances that promote your crime-prevention readiness. For instance, post signs that state your use of monitored security cameras, regular security patrols, child protection policies, and more.
- Safety Checks: Do regular maintenance and testing of security systems, cameras, and recording devices. Ensure your child safety procedures are effective. Practice security team drills. Do security tests with your team regularly. Publicize these checks.
- Background Aware Post your background check and screening policy as a requirement for every- one serving.
- Preparedness: Provide all key team members and locations with radios for emergency communication. Install panic buttons in key areas.
Critical Lockdown Steps
Even in the smallest of churches, it’s key to have a lockdown procedure in place. Practice these steps with your teams regularly:
- Immediately close, lock, and if possible, barricade any doors leading into the room.
- Cover any windows.
- Turn off lights.
- Hide from the view of a window.
- Hide behind or under furniture, and lie on the floor.
- Silence cellphones and maintain silence.
- Don’t answer the door until police or security have arrived and identified themselves.
One of the most important things your church leadership team can do to safeguard your facility against security threats is to complete a thorough site assessment along with security experts, law enforcement, and the fire department. A comprehensive site assessment requires you to walk through the property together, examining the exterior and interior of your church facility and its grounds. During a site evaluation, consider the following points.
What is the building layout? What are the possible points of access? How are those areas secured and monitored? Are there entry points that may not be obvious, such as through utilities? What security gaps, hidden areas, easy access points, or unsecured entry points exist? How will you address those?
Parking and Traffic Control
How does your church control parking and traffic? Are barriers in place to control vehicle flow and manage parking? Do parking areas provide adequate visibility for people on foot? Is the vehicle signage clear?
What purposes do the perimeter fence or boundaries serve? Are they in good repair? Do they prevent inconspicuous access to the property? Do these boundaries effectively manage people? Can landscaping or grounds be groomed to provide greater visibility? Find insights on environmental design that discourages criminal behavior at Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.
Are all fire hydrants on the property accessible? Is there space for emergency vehicles to access the building? Is the building’s fire suppression system inspected, updated, and code-compliant?
How do you control pedestrian flow? Does your system prevent long lines? Is security overseeing all access to public and private areas? Are restrooms, workrooms, stairwells, and elevators secure? How do you control access to the building for staff, the congregation, and guests? Do you provide identification for staff and others?
How is visibility in high-traffic areas or large gathering spaces? Is roof or balcony access limited to authorized personnel?
How secure are utility areas such as storage rooms, loading docks, mailrooms, offices and electrical rooms?
How protected is your standard communication system, such as telephones and computers? What is your emergency communication system? How do facility, security, and staff communicate with each other? Are radio and wireless systems updated, functioning, and in use? How are alarms or code events made known? Do you have a mass notification system for the entire building? What security cameras and monitors are in use? Do rooms have panic buttons? Are call boxes available in parking areas or along the building perimeter? Are security camera video recordings of good quality?
Do you have a written security plan? If so, when was it last revised? How often do teams review and evaluate the security plan? When was the last security drill performed?
Background checks are a key element of your ministry’s overall safety and security plan. Typically provided in a background check is:
- Identity verification.
- Criminal database search results.
- Sex offender registry search results.
- County court records search results.
- Motor vehicle registration.
Some convenient and cost-effective background check programs include:
- Shepherd’s Watch Background Checks
- Lifeway Background Checks for Churches
- Ministry Safe
- Protect My Ministry
First Aid First
In case of emergency, ensure your ministry is prepared.
Keep your first-aid kits well-stocked and easily accessed at all times. You can find OSHA- and ANSI-compliant first-aid kits at:
CPR and AED Training
The Red Cross, American Heart Association, and local fire departments all offer CPR and Automated External Defibrillator (AED) training.
Learn more about AED usage at here.
Safety and Security Resources
If you’re looking for reliable, helpful resources for a site evaluation and security plan, here are resources to help you get started, regardless of your church’s size or funding.
- Local law enforcement departments and fire departments will typically do a walk-through site evaluation with your team and make safety recommendations. They may also participate in drills.
- FEMASearch “security risk management series publications” to find safety checklists and evaluation tools.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Search “SafeYouth, Safe Schools.
- Schoolsecurity.org This site offers risk-assessment training, tools, and consultations.
- Sheepdogchurchsecurity.net Here you’ll find resources and training for security teams serving small to midsize churches.
- Churchsecurityalliance.comThis site provides resources for church safety and security.
- Securityatchurch.com This site provides additional resources and information on church safety.
- Churchsecurityconsultant.com You’ll find insights and articles from expert security consultant Jim McGuffey here.
- Fullarmorchurch.com This organization provides a church kit that has everything needed to launch, organize, or train an existing safety and security ministry within the church.
- Nocssm.orgNational Organization of Church Security and Safety Management is a national organization of churches across the U.S. providing educational resources to help churches in their security efforts.
Craig Cable serves as a leader and tactical trainer for the armed church security team at a megachurch in Loveland, Colorado. He also provides security consulting and training for other churches and is a board member of the NOCO Christian Security Roundtable.
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