IDES offers a “Safe Worship” training program to help churches increase their safety and security.
By Jim Nieman
Shootings at houses of worship are becoming more common in the United States. But there are simple, straightforward, low-cost steps churches can take that minimize the potential for such incidents.
“The very first thing to do is address building access,” said Ed Sanow, a 30-year police veteran who serves as director of training with International Disaster Emergency Services, Noblesville, Ind. In his role with IDES over the past two years, Sanow has conducted 50 “Safe Worship” training programs at churches across the country.
“You can’t walk into a public school today without being greeted. We want to have the church somewhat mirror that.”
Sanow recommends having a small team of people from the church—a representative each from among students, seniors, elders, ministry staff, and law enforcement (if available)—walk around the church property.
“Look at every outside door and make a decision either to keep that door locked from the outside or staffed,” Sanow said. If the door is “staffed,” there should be one or more persons greeting every person who enters by that door. (If a door is left unlocked during worship, it should be staffed.)
Greeters and a Safety Team
The greeters will welcome members and visitors warmly—as greeters at most churches do—but they will be instructed to remain observant. Husband-wife teams make good greeters, Sanow said, because women often are more perceptive about certain things than men.
“What we’re changing is having [the greeters] make some assessment on what they’re seeing based on their life experiences,” Sanow said. If something about a person entering the church is troubling to a greeter, they shouldn’t personally intervene, but simply notify a member of the church safety team.
Members of a church’s safety team are unarmed. These are folks who have been trained to verbally interact with people by either undergoing training in anger management (known also as conflict resolution), or de-escalation training, or both. “This type of training is available for free at many outlets.” (See the note at the end of this article.)
It is best for safety team members to also be trained in how to interact with folks who have mental illness. That type of training isn’t as readily available to civilians, Sanow said. However, private citizens generally can find training for how to interact with people who are autistic (though, Sanow stresses, autism is not a mental illness).
“The way you approach a person who is autistic is the same way you approach someone who is mentally ill,” Sanow said. “And it’s easier for the general public to get training for working with someone who is autistic than someone who is bipolar.”
Again, such training typically is offered for free.
Understand Battery Laws
The final basic training that members of the safety team should receive is in what level of physical contact is allowed by law. For instance, if it is determined a person should be escorted from the building, the safety team member needs to understand the battery laws of the state.
A prosecutor, state’s attorney, or law enforcement official would probably be happy to come to the church and explain what constitutes battery to the safety team, he said.
“It’s really important for safety team members that they know how they can ‘touch’ another,” Sanow said. “If they physically handle a person, how they handle that person matters.” Battery is a crime in every state.
“You don’t want the headline, ‘Elder Batters First-Time Church Attendee,’” Sanow added. “There are limits to what they can do legally. [Safety team members] can’t be bullies and bouncers.”
Good candidates for a church’s safety team are even-tempered, reasonably fit folks who are good relationally, and have a “mentality of de-escalation and Jesus’ love,” Sanow said. They should be folks who understand “it’s a church, not a sporting event.” Elders, public safety professionals, and chaplains, among others, typically are good choices.
An appropriate safety mentality, suggests Sanow, is this: “Think before you talk. Talk before you act.”
Sanow said churches that employ these simple and low-cost (or free) strategies may very well defuse minor situations and prevent violence before it has a chance to start.
“Last thing,” Sanow said, “if there’s any question whatsoever” about a perceived threat, “call law enforcement.” He said police chiefs and officers have taken IDES’ Safe Worship course, and all are in total agreement with that statement.
Safe Worship Training
These are merely among the first few items Sanow covers in the Safe Worship course that IDES offers to churches, whether the churches have a security program in place or not.
Sanow says the training is unique in that it is “civilian-oriented” and is wide in scope—covering a time spectrum that begins before there is any threat of violence, through what to do during an active shooter event, and important actions to take while waiting for emergency responders to arrive.
Safe Worship training is firearms neutral; pros and cons of church members carrying guns are presented. Also discussed “is a good, better, best approach for the maximum safety and minimum liability to the church.”
Safe Worship also covers how to minimize total injuries during a an attack. To that end, Sanow suggests people visit a website developed by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University that offers advice on civilian response to an active shooter event. An 11-minute video there is especially helpful; go to www.avoiddenydefend.org.
To learn more about IDES’ Safe Worship program, go to www.ides.org/safe-worship.html. IDES’s Safe Worship training is available to Christian churches and churches of Christ free of charge, though the ministry recommends that each host church consider a stipend for direct travel expenses.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.
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Anger Management/Conflict Resolution Training
The key to finding sources for anger management/conflict resolution training is through your city or regional judicial system, Ed Sanow says.
“Contact the local prosecutor, and ask where domestic violence arrestees are either sentenced or given the choice between jail time and training,” Sanow says.
“Optionally, contact women’s shelters, or YWCA, or similar groups who may offer this training.
“Also optionally, people can do an [Internet] search for ‘conflict resolution training” or ‘anger management training’ to see what is available in their area.”