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Fortified, but no fortress

How do you balance an open-door ministry approach with safeguarding against danger? Here's some common-sense advice about basic church security.

The "iceberg" approach

Many church security experts recommend "the iceberg approach": 10% of your security should be seen, while 90% is below the surface. This helps keep your church from feeling like a fortress designed to keep people out. The visible elements – lighting, security cameras, locks on doors, designated safety patrols, etc. – remind your congregation that measures are in place without being overwhelming. The behind the scenes elements help make sure your ministry can prevent, respond to and recover from a threat quickly.

Security, seen and heard

Visible security is absolutely key: it helps provide important deterrent as well as keeping those with malicious intent out. Churches are often considered "soft targets." This means that they appear vulnerable to attack, with few "hard" defenses to keep aggressors out. Visible security is an important way to "harden" the perception of your church's vulnerability to those who would do you harm.

"Visible" security measures include:

  • Greeters. Greeters are your first line of defense. During services or activities, post greeters at all unlocked entrances. They not only welcome everyone, but they serve as important eyes and ears when it comes to threats. Train your greeters in threat recognition and response; local law enforcement or security experts can help you.

  • Safety and security patrol. In addition to greeters, it's wise to have a trained team patrol your property and parking lot during active hours. 64% of violence at churches is outside – in parking lots or on church grounds. Having a designated, trained, visible patrol can help deter opportunistic offenders.

  • Cameras. Ideally, your cameras are connected to a system that records activity in all key areas of your church. However, even if your ministry can't afford a full surveillance system, visible cameras are better than nothing. This deters behavior that would otherwise take place in secret: theft, assault, abuse, vandalism, etc.

  • Lighting. Like cameras, lighting – both interior and exterior – eliminates opportunities for secret activities. This measure is a relatively inexpensive way to make your ministry less of a target for assaults, theft and the like. Make sure exterior lighting is on a timer or motion sensor so that it's sure to be on after dark.

  • Keeping hedges trimmed. Again, this is a measure against concealment. Thieves will use hedges to conceal their attempts to break in.

Behind the scenes

Much of the behind the scenes work is preparation, planning and training. Some of the end products of this work – safety and security team, for example – will be visible to your congregation on a routine basis. Other elements will only come into play when crisis hits.

Developing an effective plan includes:

  • Assess threats. Work with local law enforcement and church security and risk management experts to assess the threats to your ministry. These will not only consider criminal threats, but weather-related, political, and environmental threats as well. This will help you address all your areas of need when you put together a plan.

  • Plan your work. Put together a team to craft your overall plan. This team should include your church's leadership, qualified and skilled volunteers and any security or law enforcement experts you have access to. Decide who is responsible for doing what, and divvy up the work so it's not too much of a burden on one person. Set deadlines and goals to help keep things moving along.

  • Work your plan. An unrehearsed, unused plan is virtually worthless. You must fully implement all the elements of your plan, and make sure that key players are trained and put through drills regularly. Make sure the congregation knows their parts, too. Otherwise, panic can take over in crisis situations.

  • Review annually. Make sure that you keep your plan updated to address new or changing threats. Don't let it get stale.

While it's not easy to think about, threats to your church do exist. Proper planning and training can help keep your church's doors open and your congregation secure.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be construed as legal advice. Readers should use this article as a tool, along with best judgment and any terms or conditions that apply, to determine appropriate safety precautions for programs and activities.