The recent hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, reminded us again that even sacred spaces can be unsafe. We should also be reminded that congregations of all sizes and locations should take steps to address the possibility that unimaginable violence could happen. So how can we “expect the unexpected?”
Create an emergency operations plan (EOP) designed especially for your church. While sample plans may help identify the scope of your plan, your church is unique in its location, buildings, schedule, activities, and culture. Therefore, you must develop your own plan with the help of others.
In creating a planning team to develop your EOP, choose ministry leaders whose input will provide practical insight from the point of view of that ministry. Include someone who thinks “big picture,” for their ability to integrate the overall approach. Invite one or more first responders to your planning team, even if they are not members of your church. They know emergency response protocol in your local area, and offer a valuable outsider’s view of your situation.
Understand the pros and cons of depending on a volunteer security team, paid security company, or paid off-duty police to provide your first line of security during church activities. The Church Administration info sheet describes the potential exemption for churches from private security regulations in Texas.
Train leaders and members regarding your EOP. Don’t just tell them you have a plan. Help them understand it clearly, and practice if possible. Provide regular emergency training for all church staff and ministry leaders. Educate new members on the EOP as part of their orientation or new members’ class. Greeters and welcome teams are critical to church security. Train these volunteers to observe and report suspicious activity before, during, and after scheduled events.
Adopt a policy on open and concealed carry. Churches have the right to allow or disallow handguns on the church premises. For more information about open and concealed carry at churches, read the Church Administration info sheet. Regardless of whether a church’s policy allows for open or concealed carry, the policy should be known by all church staff and ministry leaders. Whether the church hires off-duty police officers or utilizes an unarmed, volunteer welcome team for security, these individuals should have knowledge of the church policy and ask members and guests to comply with the church policy.
Communicate with local authorities before an emergency happens. Consider providing police with blueprints and photos of your church building and inviting them to conduct a threat assessment of your facilities. Familiarity with the property will assist law enforcement in securing the building in the event of an emergency. Provide police with the contact information for the pastor, facilities manager, and members of a church security or emergency-response team.
Maintain a ministry perspective. As you and other church leaders address safety issues together, ask how God might use the process to strengthen his family. When you talk with members about security needs and concerns, be a good listener and clear communicator of your church plans. Respect the opinions of others, while leading toward a plan that best meets the needs of your entire congregation. Do not allow fear to sidetrack you from the mission of making disciples. Highlight the security we have in Christ, even as we face uncertainty in the world.
John Litzler serves as a BGCT legal consultant to assist Texas Baptist churches in understanding various legal issues.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information and does not constitute specific legal advice. By utilizing the Texas Baptist website, you understand that there is no attorney/client relationship between you/your church and the author or between you/your church and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state with the specifics of your situation.