A View from the Pew: Security at Church

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One incident during a Sunday morning service from my childhood sticks out in my mind.

I was young, probably between 5-10 years of age. We were sitting in our regular place on the third row in the middle section of the sanctuary. The preacher was preaching. I was squirming. Everything was fairly normal. As the service continued, I couldn’t help but become distracted by several men coming and going from the back of the church. I didn’t know what was going on, but I did know something wasn’t right.

On the car ride home, I overheard my parents discussing what happened. Someone had broken into the choir room in the back of the church building and stolen from choir members’ purses. It was the first time in my life that I realized our church may not be the sanctuary I had believed it to be.

Over the years there have been many other instances when the security of houses of worship has been violated, and few more disturbing than when a man opened fire on a small congregation during a worship service in Sutherland Springs, Texas last November.

Churches are not immune from violence or crime, and societal ills going on outside the walls of the church often impact events inside the walls. The question is, what do we do about it? How do we make ourselves safe?

After the horrific events last fall, our small church began contemplating what steps we should take to make our facilities more secure on Sunday morning. It’s difficult for churches to contemplate because they are designed to be open and welcoming.

Many churches designate a person to stand at the entrance, greet latecomers, and act as the first line of defense. They probably couldn’t stop an armed gunman, but they could sound the alarm for the rest of the congregation. Troubling thought, I know. Our church has gone one step further and we now have a member patrol the grounds throughout the Sunday school hour.

It’s understood these days that exits must remain clear, functioning, and accessible in case an emergency necessitates an evacuation. But these same exits can serve as entry points into the building for those intent on doing harm. All the exterior doors are kept locked from the outside except the front doors of the sanctuary, and regular checks are made on the nursery.

Many churches have adopted the security practice of tagging children dropped off at the nursery. Parents then have to produce a “claim ticket” for their child. It can create a logjam at the nursery door at the end of church, but it is absolutely essential these days, especially at larger churches.

Just as with other public buildings, I wonder what architectural or design changes will be implemented in the future to help keep worshippers safe. Is it even possible to make a church safer without destroying the feeling of openness and hospitality? These are questions churches are grappling with, many for the first time.

Church staff members confront these issues more often than those of us in the pew, but we can help. We can be understanding when these discussions come up in business meetings and in the church hallways. There is a balance between tradition and safety, and we have to account for safety possibilities that may disrupt our usual practices.

We can also be supportive by not viewing expenditures on safety measures as over-the-top or unnecessary. Preparation is more effective than response.

And, lastly, we can take responsibility for our safety. It’s said so often now in secular settings, but it is no less true at church: be aware of your surroundings. Note the exits. Think about your course of action should an emergency arise. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for your church to conduct a drill, though I would not recommend doing so without prior notice during a worship service.

Just because we enjoy freedom of religion protections in our society doesn’t mean our worship can’t be interrupted by violence or criminal acts. Every person should be safe as they worship.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA, does media relations and issues management at his day job, and blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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