The cultural landscape has changed in the last decades. The eve of Y2K (April 20, 1999) saw the shooting and media involvement at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Thirteen people were killed, and twenty were wounded. Obviously, Columbine was not a church shooting, but this horrific event became a blueprint for mass shootings that followed. Five months later (September 15), a mass shooting occurred at the Wedgewood Baptist Church near Fort Worth, Texas. Here, seven people were killed and seven others wounded. Since Wedgewood, there have been at least eighteen other church shootings. The deadliest was in 2017 at Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed. Another high-profile shooting was at the West-Freeway Church of Christ on December 29, 2019, in White Settlement, Texas. Here a trained church security team member decisively intervened and saved untold lives.
The severity of the consequences of a church shooting is extraordinarily high. The occurrence of such events is likely a driving force to begin developing a safety ministry for your church. However, as you develop a safety ministry, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, never lose sight of why your church exists. Our churches exist to spread the gospel. That may take with it some inherent dangers. One thing to note is that we must not allow structures and protocols for maintaining a safe environment to overshadow a ministering environment. In other words, we must maintain a balance between ministry and safety. Second, there are other critical incidents that your church will more likely face than a mass shooting. Your safety plan must account for the likely, and not become singularly focused on the unlikely.
Developing a safety ministry can be a daunting task. The tendency will be toward buying a prepackaged plan with ready-made policies and procedures. My advice is to do the long hard work and put together a plan that considers your specific context.
In developing your plan, start small and build success. Often, we want to start with the grand total of all safety aspects in mind. This mindset can quickly overwhelm us, and soon we are stuck in the paralysis of analysis. However, instead of tackling the whole thing at once, there are a couple of places that are recommended starting points. Medical emergencies are a sure thing. It’s just a matter of time before you have one at your church. A second likelihood is a severe weather event. Start your process by developing protocols for these two very likely incidents and build from there.
In addition to a plan, you must have a team to respond to the incident. As you put together your team, it is critical that you recruit competent people for these roles. Let’s be frank, your safety ministry is a high liability area. Pray and ask God to bring the right people to this ministry. Be sure to vet team members. The wrong person on your team can increase that already high liability exponentially. You want godly, level-headed people who will reduce your liability, not increase it. In recruiting your team, there are at least two factors that must be considered. As we just mentioned, the first is character. The second characteristic is competency. On the medical side of things, doctors, nurses, and paramedics are great choices. On the security side, police officers (active and retired) and former military personnel, especially combat veterans, can be great team members.
As you step further into building your team and plan, examine the layout of your building and property. Starting with the parking lot, view your property in rings or layers. Layer one might be the parking lot. Have greeters welcoming people out there. Layer two might be your entry doors. Layer three might be additional greeters in the foyer. A fourth layer might be another set of greeters or ushers at your sanctuary doors. Layer five might be ushers and safety team members inside the sanctuary. With this approach, a would-be intruder would have to penetrate five rings of people before ever taking a seat. Additionally, a marked police car, a uniformed officer, as well as restricting some of your access points can go a long way in turning a soft target into a hard target. Also, along these lines, train your teams to be observant. Obtain inexpensive two-way radios so your team can communicate with each other and function together.
Another critical aspect is to train your team. As you develop policies, procedures, and protocols, train your team members on them. Have a local police officer train your people on how to spot suspicious or threatening behavior, how to de-escalate a tense situation, and what types of incidents to get involved in or when to call the police.
Next, give your team members the appropriate authority to act and then support them in the decisions they make. The senior pastor cannot be all places at once. He cannot be preaching on Sunday morning and directing the safety team during a critical incident in the parking lot all at the same time. Someone besides the Senior Pastor must have the authority to make decisions in critical incidents. The team leader and the safety team must have the support of the Senior Pastor and highest-level leaders.
Finally, view your safety ministry as a continual work in progress. As you grow your team and your program, continually tweak and improve.
Todd Cathey is the Executive Pastor of Arrow Heights Baptist Church, Broken Arrow and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.