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Is your church safe?

A Michigan church took steps to help keep the congregation, staff and related groups safe

by Rev. Lynne McQuown and Dr. David Steel, Jonesville First Presbyterian Church | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Together with outside sources, various groups and committees at Jonesville First Presbyterian Church in Michigan collaborated to develop a nine-page safety plan for the 120-member church. (Contributed photograph)

JONESVILLE, Michigan — Jonesville First Presbyterian Church has always prided itself (and still does) as being a congregation of warm and welcoming Christian worshipers. The church, which has 120 members and an annual budget of slightly over $150,000, has always welcomed strangers with enthusiasm.

However, as horrific events began to occur in churches across the country, this welcoming attitude began to be replaced with a more cautious, almost fearful, approach to unfamiliar persons in the church building and a need to begin thinking about personal safety.

A group was formed, called the Safe Church Committee, comprised of congregation members and the local chief of police. The committee met for well over a year with guidance from the pastor and under the watchful eye of the church session.  Contact was made with other churches, the County Emergency Services, an attorney, the liability insurance provider and insurance underwriters, and the area presbytery. It was decided, early on, that our church did not have resources to provide for an armed guard and we would have to rely solely on volunteers with a well-thought-out plan. No weapons are allowed in the church building unless carried by a registered police officer.

Our Safe Church group met with the ushers committee, with the education committee and the building and grounds group.  The Registered Nurse on the committee was responsible for developing a plan for dealing with illness and injury.  A group of congregation members had taken training with the newly purchased Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and would be available if there were heart-related issues.

The document that was developed was nine pages long and involved a detailed plan to keep us safe during the emergencies including: suspicious/stranger entering the church building during the Sunday service, any disruption in the Sunday service, an active shooter in the church building, safe passage for children in the nursery and classroom, and an evacuation of the church building. Also provided for in the plan was dealing with various health emergencies such as cardiac, stroke, diabetic and a fall with injury. An emergency medical cabinet was stocked with bandages, blanket, water bottle, etc., and the cabinet was mounted adjacent to the cabinet containing the AED.

Provisions have been made for future training in first aid. Addressing bomb threats, tornadoes, power outages, gas leaks and fire emergencies were included in the plan.

The plan also includes a detailed floor plan and location of all exits, fire extinguishers, water, gas and electric shut-offs. Because County Emergency Services was part of the plan, their rescue staff would be able to locate the site of any emergency before entering the building.  Appropriate signage was put in place marking exits and the route to their location from various points in the church building.

Primary and secondary shelter areas were identified as well as a plan to assist people with handicaps and children to these shelter areas. Safety for children was given special attention not only for emergencies, but also safety from unauthorized persons attempting to remove children from the building

The plan was reviewed by all church groups, and the committee made numerous improvements. A slide deck version of the plan was developed and presented to the congregation as a final step.

The most controversial part of the plan had to do with locking the church doors during services.  A church should be a welcoming and friendly place.  People should be encouraged to attend and not be locked out. But people should also feel safe and know that there is plan for emergencies — not only from other human beings, but from weather, utility failures, heath issues, etc.

And so a compromise was reached. All doors except one that opened directly to the sanctuary from the street were to remain locked during the service. Ushers and Safe Church Committee members were stationed at this special door in an area with plenty of glass; they were directed to screen all people entering after the service began. In addition, persons unfamiliar to the usher who enter the service before the service begins were to be greeted by the ushers and appropriate action taken, if necessary. All doors would be locked during times church-related groups and/or staff are using the facility during the week day.

It was stressed that all members have a responsibility to be vigilant and to make themselves aware of exits, safe places and how they could be of help to others.

With this plan, of course, regular refresher workshops and in-service meetings will be important as we move forward.

Let us pray that we never have to rely on this plan for our safety. But there is some comfort in knowing that attention has been given and will continue to be given for our safety while we’re in this building.

“Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 (NRSV)

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