How safe is your church?
by Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service
Originally published September/October 2019
The pastor glumly ordered a salad with dressing on the side. Her lunch companion wondered whether her friend would rather have had a greasy hamburger instead. The pastor’s sour mood, though, wasn’t about healthy food choices. It was about the choice her session had made to lock the doors during Sunday morning worship.
After two decades of guiding the congregation to be welcoming to its community — one that elders had noticed becoming riddled with drugs and crime — the soon-to-retire pastor felt defeated. She wondered about the message that locked doors would send.
“I feel my time there has been for nothing,” she admitted.
It’s been four years since that Presbyterian church’s decision to lock the doors, and more Presbyterians are wondering whether they should do likewise, especially as gun violence escalates in once sacred — and presumed safe — spaces.
Though the vast majority of active shooter incidents occur in government, military, commercial or educational settings, houses of worship accounted for 4% of 250 active shootings in the U.S. between 2000 and 2017, according to FBI data.
“It’s deeply upsetting that today’s worshipers, regardless of religion, have to contend with the very real possibility of an armed intruder,” said Rich Poirier, president and CEO of Church Mutual Insurance Company in Merrill, Wisconsin.
In its recently released, first-ever survey on safety and security in houses of worship — “The Church Mutual House of Worship Safety and Security Study” — 51% of those surveyed feared armed intruders in places of worship, surpassing fear of natural disasters, cyber-security breaches and even sexual misconduct as the top safety issues.
Clergy like the Rev. Caitlan Quinn Gartland, an associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown in Chestertown, Maryland, acknowledge that there is a growing urgency for churches to take steps against an active shooter. The pastor also acknowledges that churches are wrestling with the best way to do that.
Trying times, difficult decisions
The tension among congregations lies in the question of how far a church should go to keep its flock safe without turning a sanctuary into a fortress.
The Chestertown church is in a diverse college town along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The congregation has always been proactive in preparing for emergencies, having created a manual years ago on what to do in a fire or a natural disaster, Quinn Gartland says.
However, what to do in the event of an active shooter had not been addressed. Congregants want that to change, with some even calling for the church to lock its doors on Sundays.
“People are getting quite vocal about that,” Quinn Gartland said.
The church’s doors are locked during the week when employees are in the building, and so the argument, the pastor says, becomes “Why not keep the 150-plus worshipers safe on a Sunday morning?”
The session, though, has been steadfast in its response — “no” — contending that locked doors on Sundays should not be viewed just from a safety standpoint. It should be viewed as a theological statement as well.
“What kind of community do we want to be?” Quinn Gartland said.
As the session explores this question, a safety team has been created. Six to eight members take turns weekly sitting in the narthex, with a parking lot view of who is coming toward the building. The person at the door is armed — with a boat horn.
“It’s not high tech, but the horn can alert the congregation if there’s a problem,” Quinn Gartland said.
Admittedly, the current plan is not ideal, and the young pastor grapples with a gnawing question: What if someone is not let in?
“I don’t want anyone to decide who is welcomed in and who isn’t,” she said.
The evacuation plan
If you told the Rev. Dr. Philip Oehler at his ordination that one day he would be taking his trustees to an FBI-led active shooter training specifically geared for churches, he wouldn’t have believed it. Twenty-five years later, the pastor of The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury in Woodbury, New Jersey, has done just that.
In late 2018, church leaders learned about an FBI active shooter training in Philadelphia. The decision to attend was not difficult. The pastor’s wife is a teacher, so responding to an active shooter is top of mind in the Oehler household. And while there haven’t been any major safety concerns in the almost 300 years of the church’s existence — The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury celebrated three centuries of ministry in 2021 — the church is located downtown in the county seat of Gloucester County. “We have a lot of different people coming and going,” Oehler said.
The trustees left the active shooter training with a “big packet of info,” Oehler said. Among the safety procedures suggested was to redirect how folks enter the building on Sunday mornings. As with many old structures, there are often several entry points. It’s important to have only one entrance used so that traffic can be monitored.
The trustees are also working on an evacuation plan. This is in response to the first course of action they learned in the active shooter training: If possible, get out.
The trustees have walked the property, making sure exits are marked clearly and are accessible. The exercise was valuable, as it was discovered that a side-door exit had inadvertently become a closet “crammed with stuff,” Oehler said.
The evacuation plan will address, too, how to assist those with limited mobility, which is especially important with an aging population, the pastor adds.
The other two points of action in an active shooter model is to have a safe space to hide — “make sure meeting rooms or classrooms have blinds on windows and locks that can be locked from the inside,” said Oehler — and the absolute last resort: fight back.
Oehler says that the evacuation plan has become more than an active shooter plan. It will be helpful in other emergency situations, such as a fire. The trustees will introduce the plan to the congregation this September. It won’t be a surprise to them, as the quest for safety has been shared each step of the way on Sunday mornings in a “minute for mission” format. Oehler says these conversations are for transparency and to quench fear.
“We have to drop the anxiety level. It’s time to talk openly about gun safety,” he said. Part of that conversation includes who a potential shooter might be.
An FBI agent told Oehler and his trustees that shooters are often white males between the ages of 25 and 45. And, in predominantly white congregations, a shooter could be a disgruntled boyfriend, someone with mental illness or addiction problems, or someone with a history of domestic violence. That’s why the church needs to be aware of the “problems our people are facing and address them before they boil over into violence,” Oehler added. For congregations of color, an active shooter is most likely to be a white male with racist ideologies.
As for locking the doors during worship, that’s not an option for The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury. Oehler shared an incident in which a friend’s church started locking its doors.
On two occasions, the ushers who were positioned to let people in happened to step away, angering those trying to get to worship.
“We’re not locking down the church like a fort,” Oehler said.
Northminster Presbyterian Church, located north of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, is an active congregation whose building is used by many organizations. People who know Northminster Presbyterian would agree that the church lives up to its website greeting — “All are welcome in this place.” And yet, on Sunday, its doors are locked.
The Rev. Scott Phillips says that the decision to lock the doors was not necessarily made because of the growing concern about gun violence. Rather, it was made after an incident that happened at the church.
One Sunday five years ago, a bipolar man made his way into the nursery. After that, the congregation started asking, “How does a church maintain a sense of warmth and openness, and yet prevent incidents like this from happening?”
“It was also a reminder that the world is changing. And yet, we don’t change, unless we have to,” Phillips said, pointing out that safety concerns are for all churches — big and small, urban and rural. The small Nebraska church Phillips grew up in is now locking its doors on Sunday mornings, he said, adding, “Even my dad, who never locked his doors in Nebraska, is doing so.”
Phillips says that locking its doors has led the church to what he calls “intentional hospitality.”
The ushers assigned to the doors on Sundays now have to be “on the ball” while doing their jobs as ushers — acknowledging, engaging, greeting and watching out for any signs of trouble or distress.
The locked doors have also meant the intentional choosing of ushers. Not just anyone can be at the door, says Phillips. Northminster Presbyterian assigns four ushers on Sundays. The ushers are a mix of able-bodied folks and older folks.
“You want someone at the door who is physically able to respond to an emergency, but there is value in having an older person as part of the ushering team, as that person would have a history of who’s who at the church,” Phillips said.
Northminster Presbyterian is also investing in a security system where doors can be automatically locked and unlocked with an app on a phone and access can be granted or withdrawn as needed. The system is pricey, but unused memorial funds have helped defray some of the cost.
“When I first came here a year ago, I began looking into the memorial gifts and realized there was money that was not being used,” Phillips said, adding that families of loved ones memorialized by the gifts were “happy to have the money used for the safety of the congregation.”
Overall, locking the doors on Sundays hasn’t tarnished the church’s welcoming image.
“When asked about the locked doors, ushers tell people it is for their safety. People seem to appreciate that,” Phillips said. As for the suggestion by one of his members for him to carry a concealed weapon, Phillips had to disagree. There are Presbyterian churches where this is the practice and those contacted by Presbyterians Today did not want to go on record as it is a controversial topic, leaving many congregations divided. Phillips, though, went on the record and said that carrying a gun would not sit well with the Mennonite blood that he got from his great-grandfather.
While safety experts stress there is not a one-safety-plan-fits-all for churches and each congregation’s context is different, Oehler says one thing should be considered.
“What do we call the space we worship in? We call it a sanctuary,” he said. “Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t take steps to keep it safe.”
First steps toward safety
- Lock all nonessential exterior doors.
- Assign greeters trained to assess security threats to entrances during services and gatherings.
- Teach members to report behavioral warning signs of violence.
- Know and follow state and local laws regarding weapon use.
- Work with local law enforcement to determine areas of vulnerability.
- Develop a safety and security plan, train and drill regularly and communicate the plan broadly.
Source: Church Mutual Insurance Company
What worshipers suggest in order to feel safer
61% – communicate and educate on safety plans
56% – work with local law enforcement to prepare
55% – train staff and volunteers
51% – develop response plans
44% – increase physical security
Source: “The Church Mutual House of Worship Safety and Security Study,” Church Mutual Insurance Company
“Creating Safe Ministries” is available here.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has helpful disaster-related information that addresses all types of disasters here.
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship offers a “Gun Violence and Prevention Congregational Toolkit” here.
Church Mutual Insurance Company offers several church safety resources, including videos on how to protect a congregation against active shooters. Go here.
Pastor shares safety tips
The Rev. Cynthia Betz-Bogoly admits that safety is her passion. How can it not be? The pastor of Elkins Park Presbyterian Church in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, grew up in a firefighter family. She has followed in the family tradition and is a certified emergency medical technician (EMT). Her husband, Russell, has served more than 20 years as an EMT and is a firefighter in Elkins Park. Daughter Natalie is following in her parents’ footsteps, having passed her CPR, AED (automated external defibrillator) and BLS (basic life support) exams at the tender age of 9.
It’s no surprise that where Betz-Bogoly serves, she makes safety a priority — doing church walk-throughs to identify possible fire hazards and safety breaches, hosting first-aid training for church family and community alike, and even holding yearly fire drills on Sunday mornings.
Betz-Bogoly takes safety seriously, but she says that being safe doesn’t have to be hard. She says it’s “about common sense and being alert of what is happening around you.”
Here are some tips:
Assess your campus — The most effective step a congregation can take is to walk the property — both inside and out — noting broken locks, windows that don’t close and other possible concerns.
When Betz-Bogoly came to Elkins Park Presbyterian in 2013 and did her first walk-through, she discovered a door that was a viable emergency exit nailed shut. She also found children playing inside the church one Saturday. “The kids found their way in by reaching through the door’s mail slot and disengaging the crash bar in the inside of our door,” she said. “Your church is never as secure as you might think.”
Update your phone — The pastor also got rid of the rotary phone in the office. “Kids don’t know how to use a rotary phone. What would happen if they needed to make an emergency call?” Betz-Bogoly said. With the new phone came a laminated card next to it with detailed directions to the church.
“If someone in the building is not familiar with the church and had to give its exact location, could they? We have it written out,” she said.
Ask the right questions — Drawing from her first responder experience, Betz-Bogoly has written a script instructing church members on how to respond to those in need.
“A 911 operator doesn’t ask what’s wrong. They get specific. Why did you call the ambulance today?” she said. “Those in the church should be specific, too, and ask, ‘What brought you to (name of church)?’”
“I practice this on my deacons,” she said, role-playing with them so that they are comfortable with such a conversation. Betz-Bogoly also says that targeted questions help weed out those who looking to scam houses of worship.
“If a person is truly in need, they will be able to answer. They will not get annoyed if the church cannot help,” she said, which brings up the importance of keeping a list of resources on hand so that a church member will not be put in the position of saying no to helping someone.
When you’re alone, keep the door locked — When the pastor comes into the church first thing in the morning, if she is the only one there, the door will remain locked. “I don’t open the door until someone else is with me,” she said.
Get expert advice — Betz-Bogoly suggests that church officials call their local police or fire department to walk the facilities with the pastor, elders and/or building committee. They not only will point safety breaches out, but many will also be willing to speak to the church about their findings.
Bless those who protect — “It’s a good idea for churches to get to know their emergency workers,” Betz-Bogoly said. Elkins Park Presbyterian does a blessing each year for the heroes in the community. “The goal of all of this is to make us aware, not paranoid. I want members of the church to feel comfortable and safe,” Betz-Bogoly said. “The good shepherd is Jesus. He is to protect the flock. What we have to remember [is that] protecting is not about prohibiting others.”
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