Protecting Your Church in Troubled Times: A Guide to Establishing Church Security Protocols
By H. Robert Showers, Esq. and Bethany R. Horvat, Paralegal
It was just last month when the final surviving victim from the Sutherland Springs church shooting returned home from the hospital. Shot five times, young Ryland is only six years old. He lost his stepmother and two sisters (ages five and seven) in the tragic shooting that occurred in November of 2017. As Ryland’s story demonstrates, active shooters give no exception to age or venue. The violent mass shooting carried the most casualties of any church shooting in American history, ranging in age from one to seventy-seven. Gone are the days where a church building was a sanctuary.
Following the Sutherland Springs tragedy and other church violence in recent years, churches all over the United States have begun to evaluate their own safety protocols in order to better secure their premises and best protect their congregants. As further evidence of rising church violence, there were more violent incidents on religious property in 2015 than ever before with the final count being 248 incidents and the number of violent deaths setting the all-time record of seventy-six (76) deaths. Unfortunately, 2016 and 2017 were not any better. In 2016, violent deaths were more frequent at faith-based organizations than at schools, and in comparing 2016 to the most recent ten years, it was the second highest in the number of violent crimes and deaths in churches (with 246 deadly force incidents, and sixty-five (65) deaths in 2016. Year after year, domestic abuse spillover—when a fight at home comes to church—is one of the three most common killers at faith-based organizations with religious bias from unstable persons and personal/employee conflicts being two others.
There are a number of things that churches need to take into account as they draft or revise their security policies and procedures (see our previous article on Violence in the Church by Attorney Daniel Hebda). In light of these recent events, it is best to prepare for the worst. As the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Here are some basic steps that your church should consider in order to provide a higher level of protection over your members and visitors.
Guns or No Guns and Who Carries
One of the key questions being asked by churches in the wake of Sutherland TX and Charleston SC mass church shootings is whether churches should allow people to carry guns, if so, whom, and under what circumstances. While states differ on allowing concealed carry guns in churches, the vast majority of states now do allow concealed carry under some circumstances. Two states prohibit concealed carrying of a gun in church; eight other states allow concealed carry of a gun with permission from the church; twenty-three states allow churches to ban concealed carry if they desire and the remaining states are a hodgepodge of regulations. However, should the church allow it and under what circumstances?
The church has at least three choices with variations of each choice: 1) permit only a trained security team to carry (maybe only law enforcement officers [LEO’s]); 2) hire an off-duty police officer and/or a security company with or without a church security team; or 3) put various risk management protections in place with video cameras, etc. to minimize the occurrence of violence at church. Obviously, some of these options can be done in combination. However, clearly, these options have concurrent risks. For example, option one is more risky (while maybe the most effective) since it involves gun-carrying parishioners who may be trained, partially trained, or cowboys. Option 3 may be the least risky since it does not involve anyone carrying or shooting guns (although maybe not as effective in an armed shooter incident).
While commentators differ on whether guns are really a deterrent and worth the risk, the following statistics are interesting. Almost all mass shootings occur in gun-free zones. Twenty-one out of twenty-two of the incidents in the last ten years, and ninety-four percent over the last 100 years, have occurred in gun-free zones. Apparently the criminals are rational enough to know where people are incapable of fighting back. Some observe that it turns these places into more attractive targets for those wanting to inflict violence, particularly if not fully sane. Churches and Schools are often gun-free zones; government offices are gun-free zones; prisons are gun-free zones; police stations (except for the police officers) are gun-free zones; courthouses are gun-free zones. This unfortunately may increase the risk of violent acts at these locations.
Most law enforcement will caution churches that relying upon congregants who are licensed to carry for protection may be ill-advised:
“To assume they’re going to be effective in an active-shooter situation is comparable to giving me a set of golf clubs and expecting me to win the Masters.” 
So, what would comprise a qualified individual for your church’s security team? We recommend that churches select individuals who are trained in emergency response as a part of their occupation (e.g. retired or active police officers, armed security personnel, etc.). Alternatively, another good option is to hire off-duty police officers to be on premises at times when the church grounds are in use, whether for services or other on-site events. This helps to ensure that the members of your security detail are receiving ongoing training in response tactics and protocol.
Regardless of the decision on guns, any security policy must have that key question answered and thoughtful execution done regardless of the answer.
Prepare the Congregation
It is critical that your congregation be prepared for an emergency situation. In order to gauge preparedness, ask yourself a few questions:
- Do the congregants know the floor plan and exit strategy?
- If the church has a balcony, do congregants know if and how to exit or where to hide?
- Do the congregants know which individuals comprise security personnel and how to contact them in an emergency?
- Do the congregants have a basic understanding as to spotting suspicious people or behavior? Do they know where to report that suspicious activity?
- In essence, does the congregation know how to respond in an emergency situation?
Questions like these may seem trivial and obvious to some; however, these types of tragedies create chaos and confusion that often cloud judgment and create more problems than solutions. A congregation can never be fully prepared for every possible scenario. However, it is potentially helpful to have some basic protocols in place so that, should an emergency arise, there is already some measure of clarity established which will hopefully abate the inevitable chaos.
Prepare the Staff and Volunteers
Staff and volunteer training is extremely important when planning for dangerous situations. Is the church nursery staff knowledgeable as to best practices in active shooter scenarios? Are the various Sunday school teachers and volunteer kitchen staff well-versed in emergency response? Or, less obviously, what about community small group leaders? That question may seem less relevant, but community groups often meet in private homes in many churches. As noted above, many active shooter situations have historically stemmed from domestic disturbances or personal conflicts. Do your community group leaders know what to do if they become aware that one of their attendees has had a protective order taken out against them? Or what happens if one becomes aware of a hostile home situation? Church members and leaders need to know how to properly assess and address these situations.
Drafting Security Policy
The items that have been addressed so far are just a sample of the types of questions that a church should address in order to best protect its congregation. Security Policies go a long way in establishing protocols to best prepare for the worst.
Churches should implement a security policy outlining the requirements and qualifications for a security force, weapons policy, response protocols, etc. It is important to note that your security team should be comprised of individuals trained for emergency response and active shooter situations.
Security Policies are best drafted by an attorney skilled in church law in order to ensure that the various provisions are included and the relevant state law applied. Simms Showers regularly works with drafting or revising these types of manuals.
Building a Volunteer Safety and Security Team
From the start of this decade and increasing to now, it is clear that churches needed a process to help chart an effective course to building a safety and security team. The process had to be relaxed but effective, and easy to implement and manage. It needed to be a succinct process with defined steps in order to allow churches to build a volunteer force that would sustain and replicate itself. It had to be organic in nature. Most importantly, it had to provide fulfillment to the individuals giving their time and energy to make it a success.
Over time, many security expert commentators have summarized the evolving process into a five-step progression:
You can use this model to build any volunteer security and safety organization. Let me briefly explain how each of these steps functions.
It all begins with identifying who you want involved in your ministry.
Make a list of the attributes you want in the individuals you recruit for the safety and security team. Some general characteristics might include:
- Strong people skills
- Mental and emotional stability
- Keen ability to observe people and situations
- Good judgment and not impulsive
In building a safety and security team, it’s important to look for people with professional law enforcement backgrounds, retired or active. Your first step here is to identify potential leaders that have a lifetime of experience and leadership qualities. Retired professionals will have time and ample experience, not to mention connections with local law enforcement agencies, which can help identify other potential recruits for your team and help you build a solid safety and security ministry.
When considering “civilians” for this ministry, you should recruit with care. These days when concealed carry permits are easily obtained, inexperienced gun carriers generally do not have the proper skills to react in stressful situations. Therefore, many of them may not be the best choices for a safety and security team.
State and local governments often regulate private security, including church security teams, so work with them as you build your team. Only members of your safety and security team should be allowed to carry weapons at church. Permitting others outside your team to carry a concealed weapon will create a number of legal and liability issues that can become detrimental to the church.
Regardless of whom you select for your team, carefully think through whom you will and won’t allow to carry a weapon. This also is one of the reasons why you staff your team with law enforcement professionals who attend your church. Your background screening process also may help you to identify the best team members to carry weapons.
For the safety side of your team, look for emergency medical technicians, registered nurses, and doctors. Equip them with medical supplies or “go-bags,” as such supplies are referred to in this field. Ask them to sit with their families in the same location in the church where they would normally sit, even when they are on duty with your team.
Now that you identified potential participants for your safety and security team, the next step is “the ask.” Here, tact is everything. You are approaching potential volunteers because you believe they are right for this volunteer position.
Never ask on the fly. Never approach a prospective team member as if to grab him or her just to have someone to fill a position. Never beg. Approach any prospective volunteers like you would if you were inviting a trusted colleague to dinner.
Make sufficient time to meet face-to-face to lay out exactly what you are recruiting for. Talk about everything in this volunteer position—the ups and the downs. Don’t oversell; don’t promise; don’t glorify.
Above all, don’t use the God trump card (God told me to ask you. God told me you should do this.) God can indeed reveal His intentions about someone to you and if that is the case, there should be no need for you to do any name-dropping. Most likely, God has prepared your prospect’s heart in advance of your meeting.
And finally, make sure your prospective volunteer knows that an application process involving a criminal background check is required. Law enforcement professions will especially understand the value of screenings. Whether you’re recruiting a professional or a civilian volunteer, you should relay the benefits of screenings and the protection they provide for the church, volunteers, and ministry participants.
Your screening process should include the following:
- An application with questions that identify potential traits or tendencies indicating that the applicant might be a bad fit for the security team.
- Reference checks with at least two prior ministries or employers.
- A thorough criminal history check.
- A doctor’s statement indicating the applicant’s physical and mental fitness to serve on the team.
Nothing damages volunteers’ enthusiasm more than throwing them into the job mix without proper training and orientation. In a potentially dangerous ministry like safety and security, policy and procedural guidelines play a big part in the training process.
Generally, safety and security training involves both individual and group activities. You will need to explain your church’s policy and guidelines for dealing with different types of security needs—domestic violence vs. teenage pranks, for example.
Define the use of force in detail—intricate detail—identifying the level of force needed for various situations. This is a “red flag” issue. Discuss weapons and which members of the team are permitted to carry a concealed weapon. Do not undervalue the importance of this discussion and the necessity for your team volunteers to understand your church’s policy regarding weapons and their use.
Safety and security training should be ongoing, scheduled, and completed at regular intervals. Attendance should be mandatory—no exceptions.
In this article, I have only scratched the surface of what has to be in place before a recruit completes training and is prepared to proceed to the deployment stage. Policies, procedures, and who is responsible for what in the safety and security ministry should be the foundation of all your training activities.
This step deploys your new volunteer to his or her area of responsibility. On this first deployment, it’s important to check in at regular intervals and see how your new volunteer is doing.
Over time, you also should rotate all your volunteers into each of the positions your safety and security ministry oversees. Every volunteer should have an opportunity to become familiar with all areas of the ministry, to the point that they can be called upon to function in any area, if necessary. Flexibility is an important element of an effective safety and security ministry.
This is likely the most important step in the process. It is in managing the ministry that you will not only be able to help your volunteers take on safety and security as more than an important job in the church, but also help them see it as a personal ministry.
If you are doing your job well, you also will come to know them in a way that puts you in the position of a spiritual mentor. This is your opportunity to build a deeper relationship beyond the weekend experience. Let them know you care about them and their family and that you are there to help and support them in their time of need.
As ministry managers, we often make the mistake of letting our volunteers’ excitement about their ministry get the best of them by their desire to volunteer to serve every weekend for all services and extra events during the week. Before long, that excitement turns to burnout, fatigue, discouragement, and more importantly, spiritual exhaustion. It’s good for people to be excited about serving the church, but often that translates in going full throttle and giving loads of time serving at the expense of family and good health.
To prevent this situation, your leadership will be critical. Be proactive in establishing a serving schedule that intentionally gives volunteers time off with their family. Perhaps an every-other-weekend schedule and certainly one that schedules them for no more than three weekends in a month. Allow no exceptions to the schedule you develop. We all need time away for spiritual refreshment and time to relax. The result is likely to be long-term service and volunteers who are refreshed and ready to serve.
Finally, how does a safety and security ministry become self-sustaining? Let’s look again at Identify—the first step in the process. As you deploy your new recruits, you will see those that aspire to be leaders. It will be natural for them. Identify that quality and exploit it.
Through those who become the natural leaders on your team, you will be able to replicate this process and reach a point of having volunteers leading volunteers. The only way you can ever grow a volunteer ministry to meet the needs of your church is to give away the leadership. Don’t be clingy. And don’t worry about who gets the credit for building a successful safety and security ministry. Set the path to success and let others pick up on your lead.
Just as your ministry changes over time, so do your preparedness needs. When you hire new employees, launch new ministry initiatives, or expand your building, you should update your plans and inform your staff, volunteers, and congregation. (Editor’s Note: Richard Hammar has addressed the topics of foreseeability and security in various pieces for Church Law & Tax, including “Failed Shooter Prevention and Fault,” “A Church’s Knowledge and Liability,” and “Can Technology Help Prevent Crime and Violence at Church?”)
It’s easy to imagine that something so tragic could never happen at your church, but experience has shown that it could happen anywhere and at anytime. With sufficient forethought, planning, and practice, you can help ensure that your ministry is as prepared as possible to face sudden threats to the congregation.
Disclaimer: This memorandum is provided for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice particular to your situation. No recipients of this memo should act or refrain from acting solely on the basis of this memorandum without seeking professional legal counsel. Simms Showers LLP expressly disclaims all liability relating to actions taken or not taken based solely on the content of this memorandum. Please contact Robert Showers at firstname.lastname@example.org or Justin Coleman at email@example.com for legal advice that will meet your specific needs.
 Bobby Ross, Jr., “After Sutherland Springs massacre, churches train for active shooters”, USA Today, December 7, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/12/07/after-sutherland-springs-massacre-churches-train-active-shooters/931103001/.
 Ross, Jr., “After Sutherland Springs massacre….”
 Building a Safety Team Used with permission © 2014 by churchsafety.com.