Churches are full of well-intentioned, good-hearted people.
But it isn’t automatically safe.
Every time a group of people gathers, there are safety concerns.
- Health issues
- Mental health issues
- Child safety
- Relational conflict
Do you have a protocol in place for how to handle each of these issues?
Pastors care deeply about the health and safety of their congregation.
This is why leaders should not leave the safety of their members in the hands of chance.
If you are on your church’s leadership team and you don't have a safety team with strategic protocol in place, then establishing best practices for security guidelines should become a priority.
Here are the 15 best practices you need to follow to protect your church.
In writing this post, I'd like to thank Sgt. Tom Weger and Cpt. Chad Abel of Proguard Security for supplying their critical law enforcement and fire professional insights.
1. Whatever you have in place, you need to have something in place
Wherever you have a group gathering, you have the potential of an incident to occur—whether that be a conflict, medical issue, or mental health issue.
There needs to be a plan for an emergency situation and personnel who have operational control when an incident occurs to execute that protocol and minimize the risk of real harm.
Don’t tell yourself: “We have police as members. I’m sure they’ll do something if an emergency occurs.”
Don’t roll the dice with your safety by failing to plan for undesirable incidents.
As leaders, it falls on you to mitigate harm to your congregants—not by being the security officer, but by delegating to church volunteers or staff who are trained and competent to put a team and protocol in place for common potential incidents.
2. Get buy-in from the right people
Building your team requires getting buy-in from three groups:
- Police and fire professionals in the church
You must have all three in place to have success.
The church staff will administer the security team; the police and fire professionals will help get the team built and trained; the volunteers will assist in executing at each event.
No single person can manage the security of a church.
Each group must understand what their specific roles and responsibilities are.
Many churches assume that safety and security fall under “facilities,” but they require their own special designation. Just like you wouldn’t trust your plumber to give you a health plan; you shouldn’t make the janitor the automatic security officer simply because he is “responsible for the building.”
3. Ask for professional help
If you have a small church, ask police and fire professionals in your church to create a plan, vet that plan, and oversee the team.
The chances are that police and fire professionals already have their own observations.
4. It’s not your church security team’s job to be the police
The security staff exist to have operational command during incidents that need immediate attention.
However, these staff members should also write in their incident protocol to contact on-duty law enforcement.
Then, on-duty law enforcement officers would take over operational command when they arrive.
Ideally, in emergencies, your security staff should serve as a way of preventing and deterring as much harm as possible between an incident and the arrival of on-duty police and fire professionals.
5. Run background checks on all church security team members
Most people who want to volunteer for the security staff are good people with good intentions.
Nevertheless, you should run a background check on every single member who serves on one of these staff or volunteer positions.
Running these background checks is a way of demonstrating to the church that you take the moral and professional integrity of your security team seriously.
Requiring background checks will make people feel safer, and it will add a layer of trust and unity to your security team.
Failing to run background checks on security staff and volunteers is itself a failure of proper security protocol, and is not optional.
Oh, and by the way, with Tithe.ly Church Management, we make it super easy to keep up-to-date on the background checks for your staff and volunteers.
6. Designate incident command protocol
The pastor does not have incident command—the security team does. The security team decides when to evacuate the building.
That’s not the pastor’s call.
The police and fire professionals who have been tasked with overseeing the safety and security team should designate who has incident command, in what situations certain personnel should take incident command, and why that particular individual is taking incident command.
For example, if you have a fire professional on your team, this person will be tasked with taking command in a fire situation.
Alternatively, if you have a security issue, this may be designated to a police professional on your team.
Again—it is important to note that the pastor shouldn’t take incident command in these situations. He may communicate things on behalf of the security team, but he should not be tasked with overseeing or commanding security protocol in the middle of an event.
7. Write emergency scripts for the pastoral team
Work with your pastor to develop scripts for the pastor to say from the stage if a mid-service emergency occurs.
This script should communicate urgency while avoiding panic, and should communicate safety without obscuring the seriousness of a potential incident.
If someone has a heart attack in the middle of the service, the security team and pastoral staff should have written scripts that communicate clearly what congregants ought to do, where they ought to go, and when they will receive their next communication.
While your pastor doesn’t have incident command, this doesn’t mean that he isn’t responsible for managing the church on behalf of the security team.
The church will be looking to the pastor to communicate to them exactly what to do in an emergency.
Ideally, if an emergency occurs in-service that requires evacuation or immediate attention, the pastor would either utilize a script written by the security team or quickly hand off the stage to a designated security staff member who would take point publicly to direct members about what they ought to do.
8. Write and distribute a safety protocol
You need to write a safety protocol for possible common issues in your church. To do this, you should either hire a security consultant or find both a law enforcement and fire professional in your church to help you do the three things:
- Identify common safety incidents in your church
- Identify current vulnerabilities in your practices
- Write and implement a security protocol that addresses these incidents and fixes these vulnerabilities
9. Create and train your safety team
Proactively ask trustworthy individuals in your church to join and train the safety team.
These individuals don’t need to be police or fire professionals, but the team should be trained and overseen by someone who meets two qualifications:
- They have extensive police or fire training
- They are able to build good rapport with local police and fire departments.
Your team should accomplish two things:
- Make members feel safe, not intimidated
- Be a team player and follow the security protocol
Once you have recruited and trained your team with your team lead, you should hold monthly or quarterly incident reports and vulnerability analyses to see how the team and protocol can be optimized.
10. Liaison with local fire and police professionals
Your security team leader and pastor should liaison with local police and fire departments to develop a positive working relationship with them.
This can be as simple as buying lunch for the local department once a quarter and asking to meet with a point person from the department to share your incidents and vulnerabilities.
When you establish a positive working relationship with your local police and fire departments, you should communicate this positive relationship to your church. When members know that the police are present and friendly with the church, it deters potential security threats and it gives members a sense of safety.
11. Invest in church safety technology
You should minimally purchase three things:
- Security cameras
- Two-way Radio communications for the Security Team and Church Staff
- An AED (automated external defibrillator)
Cameras can detect, deter, and document potential threats providing an additional layer of protection against liability.
A two-way radio communications technology enables your team and church staff to quickly and accurately communicate with other security personnel and church staff is absolutely essential when responding to potential security/safety issues.
At a minimum the individuals or groups should have the ability to communicate in “real time”:
- Security Team
- Children’s Ministries
- Speaker Assistant/Usher
An AED is a lightweight, battery-operated, portable device that checks the heart’s rhythm and sends a shock to the heart to restore a normal rhythm.
It is important that whenever there is an event at church, there is always someone available who is trained by the security team to use the AED.
12. Child safety is your top priority
If members don’t feel like their kids are safe at church, they’re not going to come to your church.
This is a vital component to creating a church check-in station.
Be sure that you have printable child stickers that you can place on children when they check in so that only the parent with the receipt can pick up their child.
Be sure that nobody works with children who hasn't undergone an in-depth background check to ensure that they are trustworthy and aren’t withholding any relevant personal information from the church.
If there is any such thing as a #1 priority for a church, it is protecting the children. If you fail to prioritize this concern, the adults will not want to attend and your church will not grow.
13. Don’t overlook these 3 common church safety concerns
When people think of issues, they often think of shootings, protests, and fires. But there are common issues over which the church team should take ownership that does not seem urgent, but are very serious.
Three primary examples of these commonly overlooked issues are:
- Domestic Situations
- Child Custody issues
- Mental health issues
If a member has an order of protection against another member, it falls on the security team to manage that situation and communicate with the appropriate parties to ensure that nothing unlawful occurs. Taking these measures is a way of de-escalating an unfortunate situation and ensuring member safety.
If there is a custody dispute between parents, the church team should oversee child custody so that no fraudulent exchange of care can occur. One way of accomplishing this is requiring the parent who picks up a child to be the same parent who dropped them off. It’s possible that a parent might appeal to an emergency situation to retrieve their child from child care, but the response should be: “We have a protocol in place to keep the children safe in emergency situations. The original parent who dropped off the child still needs to be the parent who picks them up.”
Mental health issues are increasingly common, which can sometimes cause harassment, inclination toward violence, or self-harm. The church safety and security team should take a proactive role in partnering with the pastoral staff to help those with mental health issues to access the help they need, as well as deter those with these issues from causing any harm in the church.
14. Use a digital giving platform
One of the most common concerns at a church is, sadly, people stealing from the offering plates.
An easy way to secure against this possibility is to use a digital giving software like Tithe.ly’s giving platform (which is completely free), or even better, Tithe.ly’s ChMS, which allows you to manage child check-ins, giving, and event management from a single platform.
15. Use a software that allows pastoral staff and security staff to manage issues discreetly
Pastors are sometimes reluctant to involve church staff who are police officers because they fear that the first act of police will be to make an arrest, which could create drama in the church.
It’s easy for church leaders to think that not involving security team members in potential incident cases is better for the church
It is not.
Police are trained to de-escalate situations.
Police-trained church security staff are often the best people to be involved in a situation, make contact with those involved in incidents, and discreetly track incident data.
One great tool for this is Tithe.ly ChMS.
Tithe.ly ChMS is a full-service member management software that allows church leaders and staff to manage who checked in at church, write private incident reports, and display member-specific data that tracks the overall health of every individual in the church.
Over to you
It is the pastor’s job to ensure that a security team is in place and following this 6-step procedure to protect the physical safety and financial integrity of everyone in the church building:
- Have something in place
- Get buy-in from the right people
- Ask for professional help
- It’s not your church security team’s job to be the police
- Run background checks on all church security team members
- Designate incident command protocol
- Write emergency scripts for the pastoral team
- Write and distribute a church safety protocol
- Create and train a team of volunteers
- Liaison with local police and fire departments
- Invest in church safety technology
- Child safety is your top priority
- Don’t overlook domestic orders, custody complexities, and mental health issues
- Use a digital giving platform
- Get Tithe.ly ChMS to manage the health of your members
Don’t roll the dice on church security.
Don’t throw a Hail Mary on your church’s safety when you could easily take steps to mitigate 90% of common risks.
If you haven’t followed these 15 steps, then as a pastor, that’s your job today.
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on May 29, 2020 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.