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Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Wise! The Wonderful! The Matriarchs!

Thursday! You know what that means, Matriarch day!

Dear Matriarchs,
I am a newly appointed Pastor of a small-town UMC. My administrative assistant and I have been discussing this week ways to ensure our safety when we are in the church alone. We are concerned about a number of things:

1. She shared with me that sometimes people will come into the office looking for help (money food etc.) and sometimes men come in when she's by herself which makes her uncomfortable. The offices are at the back of the church, on the ground floor. The only way out of the church from our office is through the sanctuary, or down two flights of stairs to the basement. Most of the time we will be the only ones in the building. How can we both reach out and ensure our own safety?

2. Our other concern is use of the Sanctuary. We had thought about maybe locking the doors but having a call button so that we could let people in. But that seems to me to say, "we don't' want you here!" Some people feel unwilling to use the call button----they may have just enough courage to open the door! Plus, if we lock the doors, anyone who feels like they want to come pray in the sanctuary will not be allowed unless they talk to one of us to open the door. (This happened on Friday. She came out and found someone just sitting in the sanctuary.)

Suggestions? Ideas? Please Help us!

My words of wisdom go back to the advice I was given as a sweet young southern belle (insert laughter here) moving to New York City: “Pay attention to your icky feelings.” Don’t ignore them. Weigh them. Consider them. Sometimes you need to take risks, other times you may want to step back. I’ve always been comfortable in the building, but I have been reluctant to drive someone without another grown-up in the car. Although sometimes I’ve even done that.

On to advice.

From Abi:
I think you all need to raise this issue with the PPR committee and the trustees. I would even check with your insurance company to see if they have some recommendations. It is an issue. Plus you want to be sure you get everyone on board so they understand what and why you are doing what you are doing. We don't need to live or work in fear, but we do need to be mindfully careful.

Our doors are locked, yet with a call button. But we do unlock before a group comes who might be using it. We now have a day set aside for prayer and we leave the front door unlocked on that day.

You might get the members in the habit of using the call button. Or you could have a designated male there at all times. But a designated male does not mean safety. Men have been robbed, mugged, and killed too.

It is sad that even in a small town you have to lock doors and think about your safety, but it is the case. Good question.

How do you be the church of open doors, yet do it safely?

From Jan:
Dear Safety Pastor:

This conversation has often occurred in our building:

Person who's come in and is wandering the halls: I'm looking for the pastor.

Me (the Pastor) running into him in the halls: The pastor isn't available right now. Someone can help you (tomorrow, this afternoon, etc.)

Many people see me and assume I'm the church secretary. And that's okay if he believes that the church secretary can't help him. A disturbed person is going to be disturbing with the secretary too, so sometimes it doesn't matter who deals with such folks who wander through our doors.

Actually, I've always thought that getting killed in the church building would not be the worst thing that could ever happen, in eternal terms.

Having said this, we have a security system in our building after an assortment of transients started living in the church basement, scaring away the evening circle members. The security system now serves as a deterrent in that we clearly have one and someone might (erroneously) believe that we are super safe and have emergency alarms that ring into the police station in case of trouble. The truth is that everybody in town either 1) has a key to our building or 2) knows the security codes to turn the alarms off. This is what happens when you choose for your building to be a tool for community ministry which is what we should be doing. We have many 12 Step Groups, Mission Projects, etc. and so we can't leave the building locked. (We do lock the building when only one or two people are in the building and/or expected.)

Our sexton has a sixth sense in terms of noticing when possibly dangerous individuals are in the building, and then he vacuums outside my study until the person is gone. Perhaps expanding a staff member's job description to include this "watchful eye" task would be helpful.

And on this note, I open it to you. What do you think? Is Safe Pastor an oxymoron? What’s the difference in being a fool for Christ and just plain stupid?

I hope that you are well-
Peace to you-


  1. I am reminded of a wonderful UMC Pastor's Wife that I know very well (she was my 7th grade music teacher) who let a "normal" looking male in who wanted a glass of water when she was alone.

    She was raped and beaten severely. He stole her car; it was found and he was caught that same day. She was in rehab for months and therapy for years. She has recovered, but it took a long long time.

    This is an excellent question -- a little preventive thought here can be so very valuable. Talk to the SPR and voice your concerns.

  2. This is a tough one! In a very safe upper class neighborhood in suburb that was crime free, a church secretary was murdered. Small churches with no staff and little activity are very vulnerable. How to be meek as doves and wise as serpants?

  3. Dear gals and pals,
    Some ways of dealing with this issue that I have seen:

    - Doorbell or ringer. You can see who is coming. You can control access. Of course, the downside is that folks can't use the sanctuary and it feels less welcoming.

    - Shared space: Another organization or ministry uses part of the church for office space, thus there are more people in the building.

    - An onsite sexton (lives in the church) - this person makes sure that when groups are expected the doors are unlocked, chairs are set up, etc. It also helps to have someone in the building overnight.

    I agree that you must listen to your gut. I won't open the church door if I am alone and I don't know the person who is knocking.

    - In the church I currently am at, we do get a lot of people looking for assistance, food, etc. We have very clear that we don't give out those things at our facility, but we do direct people to ministries that do (which we support through out donations and time).

  4. In my present UMC appointment, I work with a staff for the first time, and am the first female pastor. We have a (female) administrative assistant full-time, a (male) senior pastor, a (male) financial secretary who is upstairs, and a (male) full-time custodian who works odd hours and is in and out much of the day. The door to the offices opens to a little vestibule from which all the offices are separated by either a hall or another room, so we can't necessarily hear when someone comes in, even though we're close by.
    We have kept our sanctuary locked for several years, following an incident there (before my time), although we do open it on Good Friday and people are welcome to come in through the office doors during office hours (we attract tourists because it's a historic building). There is a volunteer who sits at a desk in the vestibule most of the regular office hours (9-12 and 2-5). Since I've come (and following an encounter with someone who made me very uncomfortable), we have made a policy that if there is only one person in the building or if there is no one on the first floor, then the door is to be locked. This allows for the door to be unlocked most of the day, Monday thru Friday. There is a buzzer, and I don't think anyone has really hesitated to use it (even the aforementioned tourists during the lunch hour). We have couched the policy as wanting to avoid the surprise of discovering someone there when you thought you were alone, and it has been well received.
    I would prefer if we didn't have to lock up, but our administrative assistant has many stories about 'strange' people coming in while she was alone in the building, including one who threatened her with a knife. That, clearly, is not something we want to repeat.
    BTW, since I was the focus of one particular individual's unnerving attention, for a while it was the policy that I, in particular, would simply not be alone in the building. That turned out to be impractical, but I prefer to be very careful. Locked doors and peepholes or cameras can be very reasonable security measures that don't interfere too much with the doing of ministry. I think it has more to do with how we behave when we open the door. If we act like it's an imposition to come out of the office, then we're not being welcoming. On the issue of the offices being so far from the entrance/exit, perhaps the offices could relocate, an intercom system be added, or some other accomodation. Talk not only to the S/PRC but also to the trustees. Don't let them make it a gender one likes to be startled, and no one deserves the unintentional ambushes created when you aren't near/can't hear the door.

  5. open doors should not equal stupidity.

    where possible we should not have one person alone (male or female) in a church building.

    how to ensure that - esp in small towns - might be tricky - I guess having more volunteers polishing the place - or times of prayer - where one person per hour is also in the house ... so that others can also come in to pray.

    My purse was stolen in our church -by one of three young men who came in and who I gave juice and cookies to.

    I wasn't alone in the church - but praying with 2 others - otherwise it could have been far worse I think.

  6. I'm also a pastor of a small church in a small town. Because we are right off the interstate, and the nearest larger cities are both 90 miles away, we have alot of transients coming through - people trying to get from point a to point b without really a plan or means to do it. Thus, we get alot of walk-ins.

    Our secretary works three mornings each week. Our fellowship hall, secretary's office, and my study are in a separate building from the sanctuary.

    I probably have a bit of a harder stance on this. The church's governing board made it clear that my safety is most important and I should do what makes me most comfortable in this area. During the day I leave the front door to the office unlocked. If for some reason I'm here by myself late, or when the time changes and it gets dark earlier, I lock the door to fellowship hall late afternoon. Anybody who really needs to get in already has a key - again, small church - or usually tells me they are coming by so when they knock I have a good idea who's there.

    When I'm here by myself and someone comes by for assistance, I always walk out of my office (which only has one exit) to the secretary's desk. I'm very aware of my three exits from that point. If it turns into a counseling session, we sit in fellowship hall. There is no one else around, so privacy isn't an issue, and again, I have a few get-away points that I can at least try, if necessary. We have food vouchers for one of the local markets and I direct them there. If the person requires a tank of gas, I have them follow me to the gas station. Under no circumstances do I feel that I need to have a stranger get into my car with me, or me with them. There are just too many other ways in our community to provide assistance - including the police department, who are more than willing to come and talk to someone and try to get them the help they need. Yes, in a small town knowing the local officers is very helpful.

    Another thing I noticed after I'd been here a few months - I wondered if people were stopping here simply because they saw a car in front of the church. The church up the street doesn't have this kind of traffic, but they also don't have anybody in the office most of the time. I started parking my car in front of the office building across the street. People in town and obviously from the congregation know my car, so therefore would know that I'm in the office even if they see my car across the street. People passing through see no one parked in front of the church and think no one's here. Walk-ins have dropped considerably since then.

    Perhaps this all sounds a bit hard-nosed, but again, there is alot of assistance available in this community from agencies who are trained and have the resources to do so. The church doesn't have to do it alone.

  7. Safe. safe. safe.
    Our administrative building borders a city park, and we are next to a bus stop. Because we rent space in another part of the building, the entrance door is always open. If I am working later in the afternoon, say through dinner b/c I have a night evening, I just lock myself in my office (has a window to see hallway) and I feel safe. A lot of young mothers with children come to use the restrooms while playing in the park (and some other folk, too) and I like that we can offer that service. But I make sure I am safe, and if I am alone in the building when no one else is downstairs offices, I lock up. So, I agree--prevention is important.

  8. When a good friend of mine was attacked last year in her church office, then marched at gunpoint out to her car, told to get cash from the ATM, then marched back into the church building so the perp could hold up her colleague (the head of staff), I got smart. Unless there are four or more people in the building, the doors are locked.

    There is a large sign directing people how to knock loudly or call us on a cell phone if they need in, plus, my office windows face that door.

    It's a sad world.

  9. One of my churches is in a transitional neighborhood and I am often here alone [like right now]. When I am here alone, the doors are locked, period. Church people know that I am parked in the back of the building when I am here, and that if they want to see me, it is best to call me first. They also know exactly which door is best to come to and knock loudly.

    After night-time gatherings, we make it point to have people walk out together in groups ...

  10. One thing that makes this tricky is a subtle gender issue running just below the radar. Clergywomen sometimes hesitate to bring up safety issues because they fear that the board will be thinking, "A male pastor wouldn't be afraid to be alone in the church." Likewise a male pastor might hesitate to bring it up because, hey, real men aren't afraid of anything." The truth is, ANYONE alone in the church is vulnerable to someone with evil intentions and no one should be made to feel that they are the problem for being worried.

  11. Great discussion. Listing, you're doing a great job with AtM!

  12. You ARE doing a great job, Listing.

    Church buildings scare me. There's just so much landscape. FWIW, the church I served last year is going to swipe cards for those members who have a reason to be in the building, and otherwise nobody is in there at night. The swipe card thing also alerts a central university security agency that the building is occupied. It helps some.

    I used to volunteer (tutoring) at a church that had a key-pad entry system for members who had a leadership role in the church. That worked really well. They changed passwords every couple months. Everyone else had to call on an intercom that had a camera. And members were sticklers for not sharing and for not letting people in. Even though I volunteered there for 3 years, I never got in the building with a member (and I asked!)

    This is asuch a tough, tough, topic.


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