Safe in the Sanctuary

The church I currently serve is in the process of developing a long-range plan for the church.  One of the initial steps in this process is a survey to members of the congregation.  My very first day on the job I sat in on a meeting of the committee that was discussing the survey and noticed a set of questions at the very beginning of the survey that focused on whether people felt ‘safe’ in the church.

    The past year has seen some scary and horrific things happen inside churches.  I was in Knoxville, Tennessee last summer a day after a man walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church and began shooting killing one man.  A few months ago a minister was shot in the pulpit at a church just of hours away from here outside St. Louis, and then last week a doctor was shot and killed at his church.  These are just a few of the incidents of violence, vandalism, burglary, and other heinous crimes which happen on the sacred ground where we go each week for ‘sanctuary.’

    Safety is a serious concern and should not be taken lightly, but how far do we go?  Installing cameras at the entrances and keeping doors locked seem like good ideas but what about security guards?  Do you arm them?  Do you keep an ‘eye’ on suspicious people?  Should we surround pulpits with bulletproof glass like the ones used for President Obama?

    The Gospels tell us that the opposite of faith is not doubt but fear.  In our churches we have to balance the desire and call to protect those who enter our sanctuaries with the impulse to act out of fear or guard against the appearance we are acting out of fear.  It is not an easy line to walk. 

    I hope the ability to leave comments will soon be up and running for this blog so we can share with each other the conversations we have had in our churches about church safety and the actions we’ve taken. I think sharing those conversations could be a help to all of us.

    The church I served before my present one had no alarm system and the doors were left unlocked even when no one was in the building.  We had no cameras, no security guards, or anything else.  The church was located in a small town and trust seemed to be the operative word.  The church wanted the sanctuary to be open anytime during the day for those who desired to come in for sanctuary or prayer.  The church I currently serve is much larger and located in a larger city that does have a crime problem.  One of our members was mugged just the other day, not at church, but not all that far away.  We have a security system and we keep the doors locked when no one is there.  We have cameras installed at the doors so we can ‘buzz’ people in if there aren’t many people around and be able to see who is coming in.  We have ushers and greeters on Sunday morning but no one trained to look out for disturbing behavior.  We do not have an emergency team that knows what to do in case of an emergency situation such as if a person came in with a gun.  I think that is something we may need to look at.  Perhaps we need to have a protocol set up, so staff, ushers, and others know what to do.  Who calls the police and how, where are the closest phones and exits. 

     Public schools and universities have had to have these conversations and begin preparing emergency protocols and preparedness training.  It may be time for our churches to do the same while continuing to live and confess the faith we have in Jesus Christ, and never compromise that for safety.