November 9, 2023

Guiding Questions for Church Security

A nationwide increase in violent crime has most congregations asking questions about the security of our buildings and the physical safety of the people in them. We are all struggling to balance our commitment to openness with our obligation to keep everyone safe.

The following questions have been useful guideposts for me as our congregation has sought to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…

What are the objective risks that we face?

Fear overwhelms objectivity. When we are afraid, we can lose the capacity to assess our situation objectively and the worst-case scenario can start to seem like the most likely outcome. A church shooting anywhere can make us feel like there will be church shootings everywhere. A vehicle break-in can make us feel like no vehicle is ever safe.

The first step in securing our churches is identifying objectively the risks that we face. Urban churches face different risks than suburban churches which face different risks than rural churches. Large churches face different risks than small churches. Churches with schools or daycares face different risks than churches without them. Churches that are seen as being politically active face different risks than churches that are not.

Do not misunderstand me: Anything can happen anywhere. Recent events have proven that beyond any shadow of a doubt. But, it is not possible to protect ourselves against everything. We need to begin evaluating our security protocols by identifying our risk factors objectively and prioritizing them intentionally.

How can we respond to our objective risks?

The marketplace is full of security firms willing to sell churches a seemingly infinite number of products and services. Each firm can present a compelling case as to why it would be irresponsible and even unfaithful for us to do anything other than to buy what they have to sell.

This is why churches need to start by assessing and prioritizing their objective risks: A church that sees the threat of gun violence as its primary objective risk might want to focus on access controls, de-escalation training, or even armed guards. A church that is dealing with parking lot crime might want to consider gates, lights, cameras, or parking lot attendants.

No two churches will discern the same security response. That’s okay. In fact, that’s a good thing, because each church’s response needs to be tailored to its unique situation.

Do our responses make us safer? Do they help us feel safer?

Every security enhancement serves two purposes in varying degrees: Making people safer, and helping people feel safer. Each is important. Safe people who feel unsafe experience unnecessary fear. Unsafe people who feel safe are in danger. Our churches need to be intentional about what we do to keep people safe and equally intentional about what we do to help people feel safe.

Consider the possibility of installing an unmonitored surveillance camera in your church parking lot: Since the camera is unmonitored, it is able to help investigators after an incident has occurred, but it is not able to alert people who could respond to an incident in progress. The camera’s investigative value makes parishioners’ property safer. Its presence helps parishioners feel safer. But, its ability to make parishioners physically safer is limited.

Should your church put unmonitored cameras in your parking lot? Maybe.

If your church’s primary objective risk is vehicle break-ins, then an unmonitored camera can provide useful evidence to help the police recover lost property. It will likely also have a deterrent effect. However, if your church’s primary objective risk is the threat of gun violence, then an unmonitored camera is probably not the best first investment.

Do our responses reflect our theology?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says to Peter: “Put away your sword.”

I want nothing more than to live in a world in which the church can answer its security questions from within a pacifist theological framework. I want nothing more than to live in a world in which we could leave the church doors unlocked, the parking lots unmonitored, and the playgrounds unfenced. But, such a world is not my reality.

I am the rector of a large parish that shares a campus with a large school. We are located in a high-crime city that is situated within a pro-gun state. I love our people deeply, and I feel a profound spiritual obligation to keep them as safe as possible and to help them feel as safe too. Protecting the vulnerable is also an important theological principle.

Church leaders live out the whole of their ministries in the liminal space that lies between the cities of earth and the Kingdom of God. Ours is a messy space. Ours is a space colored with shades of grey and defined by impossible choices.

With each security measure that we add to our campus, I ask myself how I will feel when God calls me to account for my leadership in these challenging times – to account for the ways in which our elected lay leaders and I have stewarded God’s house during the time that it was in our care. I ask myself if we are seeking to honor our sacred obligation to keep people safe or if we are just giving in to fear.

In this discernment, I have grounded my spirit in the famous prayer of Thomas Merton: “…the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”