Earlier this week, a mass shooting occurred at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, resulting in the deaths of at least 27 people, including the shooter. Such tragic events highlight a unique issue in facility security—how can an institution that is meant to be open and welcoming balance its message with its security needs?
Because churches are always welcoming places for people in various stages of spiritual or actual need, they can attract people with mental illnesses, substance abuse problems, homelessness, or even with an eye toward stealing from the facility or harming the adults, children, or students who go there as well.
Physical and operational security for churches has had to evolve over the years as pastors have had to rethink their “open-door policies.” Mass shootings at church services are not uncommon, with the June 2015 murders of nine churchgoers during services in South Carolina by 21-year-old Dylan Roof as the leading example of how churches are open to all who walk in their doors.
Churches that provide day care during services or during the week, preschool classes, or even elementary- through middle school-level instruction have had to create more structured drop-off and pick-up policies for parents or legal guardians; new access control devices, including classrooms that can be locked from the inside by teachers or staff; and even new security training for employees and volunteers.
And while some churches invite the homeless to attend services, others have realized that dealing with difficult, eccentric, or problematic homeless individuals can cause safety and security concerns or can create a frightening environment where families and new worshippers stop coming to church. One west coast megachurch has created a “sanctuary room,” monitored by security officers, which is away from the main hall, just for the homeless to be able to come inside, get some drinks and snacks, use the restroom, and watch the services on a large video monitor. They can hear the church’s message, but any inappropriate behaviors can be better controlled.
Many churches have realized they needed to improve their security posture, especially when they offer multiple services on Saturdays and Sundays, which can bring in thousands of dollars in donations after each meeting. As such, they have created full, part-time, or volunteer director of security positions, using people with law enforcement and/or military backgrounds to train their ushers and security people, who often have similar career backgrounds. Some of these people are carrying concealed weapons, either as part of their jobs or with the required local permits, to be able to provide an armed response at the facility, if necessary. Of course, this level of commitment to the possibility of using deadly force requires training, certifications, and an understanding of the liability concerns when carrying firearms among large crowds.
One large and popular megachurch in San Diego, California trains its ushers and security volunteers in a useful customer service concept called “Introduce-Explain-Ask.” The volunteers are put through common training scenarios ranging from casual to difficult encounters with churchgoers, where they introduce themselves, explain why they came over, and then ask for the person’s compliance with the church’s signs, rules, or policies. This type of de-escalation training can help the volunteers deal with the wide range of diverse people coming into the church facility.