Safety and Security on Sundays and Beyond
How churches are protecting property and people
By Justin Horey
On Christmas Eve 2012, thieves broke into Grandview Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, and stole musical instruments and audio-visual equipment belonging to the church’s worship ministry. No one was harmed during the heist, though the theft created additional stress for the church staff on one of the best-attended days of the year.
Thankfully, Grandview was able to borrow equipment from another local congregation in time for its worship services that evening, and most of the people who attended had no idea what had transpired earlier in the day.
Churches across the country have similar stories of break-ins, theft, and vandalism—sometimes worse. As a result, many churches have enhanced security to better protect property and people on Sunday mornings and throughout the week.
Dawn Gentry, volunteer coordinator at Grandview, said the Christmas Eve break-in was an isolated incident, but the church has since taken steps to protect valuable items. “Most of our efforts at security are an attempt to be wise stewards and prevent other problems,” she said.
Burglary is not just a problem for large churches. Sunday attendance at Grandview runs around 400, but the church still had enough valuable equipment in its worship and tech ministry to attract the attention of local thieves. Grandview now has grates over its lower-level windows to prevent break-ins. The church also now more closely tracks who has a key to the facility.
Many other churches have installed security cameras as a passive defense against burglars and vandals. Mark Botsford, executive minister at Newberg (Oregon) Christian Church, said his congregation recently installed a commercial camera security system as a preventative measure, though the church has not experienced any serious security problems.
At Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, cameras have enabled the church to identify and catch a number of petty thieves. Additionally, cameras serve as a deterrent. One church in the Midwest noted that its exterior security cameras are not always operational, but their very presence has reduced the incidents of theft and vandalism.
At Real Life Church in Valencia, California, where weekend attendance averages 6,000, security measures are more significant, with a security team patrolling the church’s main campus 8 to 10 times per day!
While building security is important, churches are more concerned with the safety of people than property. Jim Stanley, executive pastor of operations at Traders Point, said his church takes detailed steps to protect the congregation on Sunday mornings.
“We have at least one volunteer security team member stationed and watching each unlocked entrance at each campus each weekend,” Stanley said. “In addition, we have security team members who float or roam. Each one of these volunteers has a radio and an earpiece. By design, about half of these team members are armed. We also have security cameras and dispatchers at every campus, inside and out.”
At Newberg Christian Church, eight different law enforcement officers (active and retired) sit in “a position of advantage” when they attend worship. Until recently, those officers were coordinated but unscheduled. Newberg is now in the process of scheduling them to ensure that there is always at least one officer present at each of the church’s three Sunday services.
At Real Life Church, a combination of professional and volunteer security personnel monitor the campus before, during, and after worship services.
“The professionals are armed, and they’re identifiable if you know what you’re looking for,” said Fred Gray, senior executive pastor at Real Life. He explained that Real Life wants its security team to be visible without being intimidating. (No church wants to “spook” children or first-time guests with the appearance of armed guards!)
Traders Point even assigns someone from the safety team to shadow whichever pastor is speaking that day. If that pastor has a spouse and small children, then those family members are also shadowed between the church building and their car in the parking lot. This, too, is a proactive measure; no preacher at Traders Point has been the target of violence.
“These security shadows are relatively invisible and are present simply to provide protection should someone become overly aggressive or intrusive toward the pastor or their family,” Stanley said.
In many cases, a church’s approach to safety and security depends on the size of its facility and congregation. But when it comes to protecting children, churches of all sizes employ remarkably similar procedures. Every church interviewed for this article uses a secure sign-in system for children on Sunday mornings. Most of the churches also have procedures for locking or restricting access to the children’s ministry area, and a majority have designated individuals who patrol the children’s ministry areas.
At Grandview, the children’s wing (used by children younger than fourth grade) has three fire doors that are locked 15 minutes into the service. A security volunteer is stationed outside those doors as families arrive and depart, and that volunteer monitors the hallways after the doors are locked. There are fire exits at the back of the children’s wing, but those doors stay locked from the outside, so there is only one way into the children’s ministry area.
At Traders Point, the children’s wing is also closed to public access once the worship service begins. The wing can be accessed by an attendant who opens the door for late arrivals or for parents responding to a distressed child. The children’s wing is also closed to public access in a similar fashion on weekdays.
The Ministry Opportunities
Cameras, armed guards, locked doors, secure check-in—it can all sound very sterile, even inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching not to resist the evil person (Matthew 5:39). But Fred Gray doesn’t see it that way at all. In fact, he said the security team at Real Life Church views each encounter with a suspicious person—even a potential threat—as an opportunity to show the love of Christ.
Gray said that, thankfully, “Most security problems don’t involve any kind of violence.” Security personnel at Real Life are trained to identify those people who are suspicious or disruptive, and in Gray’s estimation, “We can spot about 90 percent of our problems—the unstable people—as soon as they walk through the door.”
Real Life’s security team is eager to identify those people, not just for self-preservation, but in order to minister to them. On Christmas Eve 2016, a guest carrying a clipboard and acting suspiciously arrived at Real Life. Within three minutes, security had contacted four pastors by radio. One of those pastors recognized the guest, identified him, and confirmed that he was not a threat. When a suspicious person is not positively identified, a pastor approaches him or her before any potential escalation can occur.
For the Real Life security team, the goal is not just to “diffuse a situation,” but to love and minister to a hurting person.
“My view of security is, to keep people safe, I have to be hyperaware,” Gray said. “But I’m going to identify needs. If I get to them early enough, I can probably help them.”
The Ultimate Goal
Clearly, no security program is flawless, and no system can prevent every undesirable situation. Indeed, churches with security protocols are still targeted, and even benevolence ministries sometimes are abused.
Dawn Gentry recalled an incident at a church she served several years ago—Post Road Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. A woman seeking assistance came to the church office on a weekday. While the woman waited for the benevolence coordinator to arrive, she stole a purse from underneath a desk in the office.
That incident led to additional safety procedures in the church office. Thankfully, the purse was retrieved by a brave associate minister who gently confronted the woman. The event also illustrated just how desperate a lost and hurting person can be.
Fred Gray said the ability to make a difference for a person like that is what motivates him and his security team, and he encouraged other churches to take a similar view.
“Maybe we can stop something bad from happening—here at church or somewhere else,” he said.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.