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Assessing Your Church Safety Needs in the New Year: Three lessons learned from the past year

By Craig Cable


For the last several years I’ve had the wonderful privilege of serving as one of the leaders of our church’s security team. And it’s been my experience that every new year brings with it new opportunities and new challenges.

It’s a great time to gather as leaders and reflect on last year’s learnings—both good and not so good—and determine what, if any, changes need to happen in the new year. I thought it would be beneficial to share some of the lessons our security team learned over the past year so that you can evaluate your own church’s safety and security needs.

Let’s get started…

1. Child on the loose – This is how the first radio call went out: “Security alert…we think we may have lost a child.” My first thought was, What does that mean? Did we or did we not lose a child? The next radio call was even more concerning than the first: “We have lost a child but we’re not sure who’s missing.” That immediately told me that we didn’t know the name or age of the child, nor did we have a description. Yikes! It felt like a pretty good time to panic to me.

Here’s what happened that day. The kids had just come back to the children’s room after singing Christmas songs during worship. It was customary to do a head count whenever the kids leave and come back to the room, and it was during this head count that they realized they were one head short. Once they determined which child was missing (a 5-year-old little girl), we locked the church down and began the exhaustive search of the building and parking lot. We also flashed the child’s check-in number on the auditorium screens as well as began calling and texting the parent. Within five minutes we located the child sitting quietly next to her mother in the church service, completely unaware of all that was transpiring outside of the room. It turns out that the little girl simply saw her mom sitting in the third row and decided to join her. When we asked the mom why she didn’t respond to the check-in number, the calls or the texts, she said she wasn’t really paying attention to any of that. And it didn’t dawn on her that the child not going back to the room was that big of a deal.

What we learned that day:

  • We were so grateful that the security team had practiced the lost-child scenario multiple times before and were prepared to respond to the situation quickly and decisively. Unfortunately, we hadn’t practiced those scenarios with any of the children’s ministry volunteers. Top of the list is more joint training opportunities in the new year.
  • This event also revealed that we needed to be more consistent in our process of educating parents on the ways that we notify them in the event there’s a problem.

When it comes to child safety, what processes and emergency procedures do you have in place if a child were to go missing?

2. Meth and ministry – You hope that your church feels like a safe place for people to come and be themselves, but maybe not so much so that they’d feel comfortable shooting up drugs in your lobby. Well, that’s exactly what happened one Sunday morning. Sitting in a chair just outside of our auditorium was a young man in his 20s using a syringe to inject what we believed was methamphetamine.

When we confronted the individual, he quickly shoved the syringe into a backpack. He also became increasingly agitated by our questions and started arguing that he was being unfairly harassed. It was at this point that we decided to call the police. Unfortunately, we had two major problems to contend with. The first was that this individual was sitting in a hallway between our children’s area and the auditorium. We needed to keep him from gaining access to either of those areas. The second problem was that, about the time the police were to arrive, our church service would be letting out and the hallway would quickly fill with people. It was at this point that we decided to lock down that side of the building in order to contain the situation until police arrived.

What we learned that day:

  • The ability for members of our team to be able to communicate with each other via radios was absolutely essential. All through radio communications, we were able to instruct one person to call 911. Another person was to block access to the children. And another person to block the auditorium doors. Like a well-oiled machine, everyone knew what to do and we were all kept apprised of what was happening.

When it comes to managing a potentially volatile situation or communicating critical information, what processes, emergency procedures, and equipment do you have in place that would help keep everyone safe?

 

3. Broken hearts and vows – Among the many reasons why our church exists, one is to minister to people in the highs and lows of their lives. The highs are often in celebration of special life events such as births, baptisms, and marriages, while the lows tend to be in response to losses. One particular area where I see people at their worst is in the loss of their marriage. Broken vows tend to bring out the worst in people, and your church is not exempt from being the place where many of those emotions spill out.

There were several times over the last year where our safety team was put on alert for credible threats of harm or in response to protection orders being issued. One such incident caused me great concern. It was a situation where the estranged husband had made threats of violence against his wife, which prompted a warrant for his arrest. While the police were out looking for him, we were notified that he may attempt to come to our church in an effort to make contact with her. Think about it, outside of the workplace, church is one of the few places where someone with bad intentions will know the time and place where someone will likely be. That was definitely the case in this situation and we weren’t taking any chances. That particular day, and for several weeks after, members of our safety team escorted this woman and her child to and from their vehicle to ensure that she was kept safe. We also alerted church staff and children’s ministry volunteers to the situation in the event that he was to show up.

What we learned that day:

  • In all but one of the domestic situations that we encountered this year, we were informed of the protection order by a children’s ministry volunteer. We found that they were most likely the first person that a concerned parent would confide in regarding a protection order being in place. We determined that we needed to be more intentional about training all of our volunteers in how to have this discussion, what information was needed, and when to notify the security team leaders.

When it comes to dealing with domestic incidents, what processes and emergency procedures do you have in place that ensure family members and the congregation are kept safe?

 

It’s my hope that some of the challenges that our church faced last year will help drive growth opportunities for your church’s safety team in the new year. It could be that experiences serve as affirmation of your existing processes and procedures or maybe reveal potential blind spots that need to be addressed. Regardless, take advantage the new year’s promise for a fresh start and implement changes that will benefit your team and your church for years to come.

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