How safe are our churches?
By GLENN HANNIGAN
The news has been nothing less than shocking. Recent reports of violent crime inside churches have forced pastors and their staffs to face a new, chilling reality.
The hot topic for the day is not the age-old doctrinal debate over eternal security but new concerns involving physical security. Not long ago, a conversation about keeping churches safe from crime might have been considered borderline paranoia. Not any more.
“It is a new era,” said Mike Selleck, Director of Connectional Ministries. “The days of leaving the church doors open 24 hours a day are long gone.”
A generation ago, particularly in smaller communities, it might have been difficult for some pastors or assistants to even locate a key to the church. Doors were rarely, if ever, locked. Now, leaving a church door unlocked is becoming an exception rather than the rule. While theft and vandalism at churches has been on the rise for years, it is the more chilling reality of physical assault that is spurring many conversations about safety in our churches.
A clergywoman from the Atlanta Decatur Oxford District is recovering from a brutal, mid-day attack inside her church a month ago. Police have arrested a 50-year-old man, who is facing numerous charges. A week later, at a Baptist church in Arlington, Texas, a 29-year-old pastor was killed during a robbery at his church and his assistant was left critically injured after being beaten.
Many churches are rethinking safety measures or, in many cases, thinking about them in a serious way for the first time.
“Currently, we don't have a written policy but measures were already underway toward better safety standards for our preschool and office staff,” wrote Gail Thompson, associate pastor at Covington First UMC. “Our trustees are changing the doors just inside at the portico to require a keycard to unlock. We have also installed a camera on our main entrance to the office area.”
Joey Hatchell, pastor of Faith UMC in Smyrna, wrote: “We follow the common sense law of never being alone and when alone, keep the doors locked and only answer if the person is known.”
Of course, for the numerous small churches across the North Georgia Conference, it is difficult not to end up spending time alone inside the church.
“I have served in smaller churches where I was often the only staff member or had a limited staff person on campus,” Thompson wrote. “We kept our doors locked to the building most of the time, especially if either of us was alone. I would say that I think it is important that we, as pastors, be wise, but we also cannot wait to do our work of ministry when someone can be with us. We need to be aware, but we also must do what we are called to do.”
Joy Melton, Chief Resource Officer for the United Methodist Property and Casualty Trust, warns people against thinking being safe is simply a matter of gender.
“This is not just about women being at risk,” she said. “This is an issue for everyone in the church. We need to get beyond the old reasoning that no one who comes on church property will ever mean us harm.”
Melton offers a variety of solutions for making churches safer, from eliminating potential hiding places by cleaning up landscaping, to using a buzzer system with intercom, to adding security cameras and lights at exits and entrances.
She also suggests that people who have to work in the office alone should tell someone when they plan on arriving at church and when they will be leaving.
And, according to Melton, advances in technology have made many systems more affordable than ever.
“Security cameras and systems can be added rather inexpensively,” Melton said. “Most small churches should have no problem affording cameras. I believe it is a matter of good stewardship.”
But Melton knows that even the best technology and most aggressive security precautions cannot guarantee safety.
“At the end of the day, ministry is always going to involve risk,” she said. “Isn’t that part of the Gospel? We just have to use good judgment and be wise about it.”
For additional information on specific ways to help make your church more safe, or training opportunities, contact Joy Melton at 770-512-8383.