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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Safety and Security

Our question this week comes from a pastor grappling with how her congregation can be both hospitable and safe.

Recently I had a very unnerving experience happen during worship and it has caused me to consider our congregation's lack of preparation when it comes to emergencies or disasters. A mentally ill man whom none of us knew disrupted our worship service, behaving very erratically; he seemed to be having some sort of paranoid episode. For the sake of space, I won't go in to all the details, but suffice it to say that I and others were concerned about the potential for violence, including gun violence (among other things, he pulled out of his bag several spent 40-caliber shells and lined them up on the pew). A member called the police, who arrived quickly but remained in the narthex observing (we have windows from the narthex looking into the sanctuary; I could see a police officer and he could see the disturbed man, but nobody else could see the police officer; the officer would've removed the man from worship but our ushers asked him to wait, as the man had calmed down by the time the police arrived).

All ended well (the man left without incident after the sermon, and the police followed him out of the building to talk with him; they had dealt with him previously because he had recently caused some disturbances in local business), but I was shaken up and it made me realize just how unprepared we are for an act of violence or really any disaster (like a fire). We are a downtown church with an active homeless ministry; we are not unaccustomed to dealing with people with mental illness. A number of homeless men, some with mental illness and/or addiction issues, regularly worship with us. We believe very much in the supreme value of hospitality and in the value of opening ourselves to relationship with people who seem different from us. This is the first time I have ever felt unsafe. Every time this man reached into his backpack, I thought of Fred Winters, the Baptist pastor in Illinois who was shot and killed by a mentally ill man unknown to the congregation, in the middle of worship.

I do not want to be paranoid. I certainly do not want our members being suspicious of anyone who is unfamiliar. I want to navigate between being open, loving, and hospitable, and being responsible and safe. I am wondering if any of you have any kind of protocol or procedures in place for handling such disturbances, and if so, could you share what those are? Are there other measures that you personally or the congregation as a whole has put in place to protect yourselves (during worship or otherwise)? We regularly call the cops when we have disturbances on the grounds during the week. It was this kind of thing happening in the middle of worship (and when children were present) that really seemd to throw us for a loop. Especially alarming was the fact that our nursery and children's education wing were both unsecured when this man left worship. I would so appreciate any wisdom any of you might offer.

Matriarch Jennifer offers:

An emergency procedure of any kind is really important to have in place when a large number of people are in the church buildings, as is a child protection policy.

A small group of sensitive church folks could easily form a task group around safety/emergency procedures. I’d suggest contacting your local police and fire departments for some guidance, and a local mental health agency for the same. We did just that a few years ago, and it was a very good experience.

Mompriest writes:

First of all, it sounds to me like you and your leadership took all the correct and appropriate measures. I'm glad it didn't turn out to be more serious, but rather an invitation to consider how communities can respond.
In the churches I have worked in we have created response plans, primarily for health issues in worship, like someone having a heart attack. But I have also had to create a response plan when a known domestic abuse couple were divorcing and the risk of violence escalated. In creating the response plan I have engaged doctors and nurses, and in your case experts who understand mental illness and homelessness. The plan includes things that help identify a real threat from just fear of an unknown person. Clearly spent bullet cases are evidence of a real threat. It also includes what to do, in what order, and by whom. Again, engage professionals to help create this plan. Teach the plan to worship leaders and ushers and a few designated folk who can manage this. Publish the response plan in designate areas, not necessarily public but readily available for those who would respond. Review it occasionally so that the response is automatic. These things always catch us unaware and we can't plan for every possiblity. But, having a plan can help stay off panic and reduce unnecessary fear.

What about others of you? Is this something your church has grappled with? Do you have an emergency preparedness plan in place? What wisdom can you share?

As always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to address, please send us an email at


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  2. We have secure child-care areas (infant through 5th grade) where you can not enter unless you have a "ticket" to pick up a child. The teens come and go without challenge from their meeting areas, as do the adults.

    We had an issue with a bipolar person, and to know how best to care for said person, we worked with some health care professionals, and asked members who were in law enforcement to be volunteer "ushers".

    We have had fire alarms go off and had to evacuate, and it was chaotic, and then fine once the "all clear" was sounded.

    I think it's important to at least brief your staff and usher team leaders on "what to do" so that you know an informed person is carrying out a plan. The biggest hassle we had was how to evacuate children who were separated from their parents, so we had a "reuniting point" well away from the building where families could come and securely retrieve their children.

    Reality. Every congregation needs a plan...


  3. Hi, This makes sense. I once had a man who was obviously intoxicated come into the sanctuary during worship. He sat down in a pew fairly close to the front. There must have been something about my face when I first saw him because one of our stronger Elders moved and sat behind him. He leaned over and introduced himself and the man was there without incident.
    Here about a month ago, at about mid-way through the sermon a woman came in the back carrying a small child...about 4 months old. She sat down. I had seen here come in and because of the size of the sanctuary couldn't see much else.. The woman put the child in the corner of the pew and took care of it.
    When I walked out I looked over and realized that the child was a life-size doll. The woman had completely treated it like a child. Some folks sitting in front of her said they had glanced around and see the 'baby' and then realized it was a doll. She totally treated it as if it were real. The woman was probably late 30's.
    When she came out she whizzed past me in the back and left the church all the time talking to the 'baby'. We don't know where she went from here.
    It would be proper to have called the police as her behavior was not normal..and she needed help.

  4. Does your denomination have a domestic disaster response organization? Our synod rep for Lutheran Disaster Response is available to consult with congregations to help them develop a disaster plan (she also writes newsletter articles and bulletin inserts for congregations about preparing for disaster)...and while we may think of natural disasters first and foremost, I'd say this definitely falls into the same category (or a similar one). Try asking your corresponding organization to see if they offer similar preparedness services or training.

  5. We have had occasional plans for specific situations, and in a previous congregation we did periodic earthquake drills at the start of worship. But less formally, I always take note at the start of the service where the two police officers and one paramedic are sitting!

  6. Thanks for the great thoughts, y'all! That question actually came from me, and I really, truly appreciate all your comments. My denomination (American Baptist) doesn't typically have the kinds of resources provided by more tightly organized denominations, though I will check and see if anything is available. I am also talking with local Jewish synagogues, since they have to think much more about these kinds of issues (unfortunately). We are fortunate to have a number of medical personnel in our congregation, but no law enforcement types (so far), so I am especially trying to figure out how we can train our ushers (or other leaders) on those kinds of security issues.

    Thanks, all!


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