A Michigan church took steps to help keep the congregation, staff and related groups safe
March 17, 2020
Jonesville First Presbyterian Church in Jonesville, Michigan, 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 people 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.
A nine-page document was developed, and it involved a detailed plan to keep us safe during emergencies.
The plan also includes a detailed floor plan and location of all exits, fire extinguishers, water, gas and electric shutoffs. 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 people 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 and health issues.
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, people unfamiliar to the usher who enter the service before it 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 on weekdays.
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.
Rev. Lynne McQuown and Dr. David Steel, Jonesville First Presbyterian Church, Special to Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Is Your Church Safe?
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Elizabeth Wittrig, Office of the General Assembly
Let us pray:
Holy and Eternal God, please help keep our churches safe. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.