Local Church Security: Resources and Best Practices
A broad welcome is a cornerstone of ministry for many United Church of Christ Local Churches. They fully embody the UCC’s adage that “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” How does a church attend to the safety of its congregants and pastors while continuing to live out its religious belief about welcoming all, and creating a just world for all? This article provides resources for Local Churches interested in strengthening their security and guarding against violence and harassment.
Over the past few years, some United Church of Christ Local Churches have been targeted by extremist groups and other groups and individuals that attack the churches’ theological positions on antiracism, the inclusion and affirmation of LBGTQIA+ people, and the churches’ other justice ministries. In some instances, church property has been physically attacked through firebombing and acts of vandalism, including destroying or damaging rainbow flags, Black Lives Matter banners, or church signs indicating the church is an Open and Affirming congregation. Other churches have had their worship disrupted by visitors from these groups. In several instances, conversations between pastors and visitors were covertly audio and video recorded by the visitors and then heavily edited to make the pastor’s comments on particular issues seem extreme, and posted to social media and other extremist websites. Those postings have caused additional threats against church property, pastors, and congregations.
Preparing your church to protect itself from violence and harassment is good ministry. Time and attention spent on safeguarding the church’s resources now may avoid damage to critical infrastructure, including people and property, that will disrupt the church’s essential ministries.
Be Aware and Assess Risks
Perhaps the most important step that churches can take is to simply be aware that these violent and harassing acts against churches and pastors are occurring. A church can be welcoming and friendly to visitors while also keeping in mind that some visitors may have an ulterior motive to harass or threaten the church to such an extent that it chills the church’s ministry. Congregants should be advised to be aware of their surroundings and if a conversation with a visitor or a visitor’s behavior does not feel right, to remove themselves from the situation and to contact the minister or designated lay leader at the church.
Some indications that an individual may be visiting your church to harass it or plan for a violent attack include: making an express or implied threat; engaging in unusual observation or surveillance of the church; taking pictures; asking questions about security practices and procedures and perhaps attempting by their actions to elicit a security response; misrepresenting their identity; or attempting to obtain unusual information about the church for a visitor, such as how the church is staffed during the week.
Know that any conversation a congregant or pastor may have with a visitor (or even a member) may be surreptitiously recorded and may be edited and publicly posted, disclosing the identity of the speakers and the location of the church. These recordings may not be legal, depending on the circumstances of the conversation and on your state’s particular laws about recording conversations, but the damage is already done when the recording is made public. If this happens, the congregant or pastor should contact the police and/or an attorney for advice about whether there is a legal remedy.
Hosting Activities and Fundraisers
A Local Church may be asked to host a community activity that is not a ministry of the church but is affirmed by its religious beliefs. Some of these activities, such as drag show story hours, dramatic productions, festivals, parades, and fundraisers have attracted protestors and vandals. As part of the congregation’s decision-making process on whether to host any community activity, the congregation should be fully informed about the risks that may arise with the activity. Selling tickets in advance or requiring advance registration, while not guaranteeing safety, may provide a bit more control over who attends the activity. If the activity carries a risk of attracting protestors or extremists, notify the police in advance about the activity and invite a police drive-by or casual presence during the event. If law enforcement responds to the invitation, thank them to help build a relationship between the church and law enforcement.
Churches may also sign up for alerts from the National Terrorism Advisory Service (NTAS). To sign up, go to National Terrorism Advisory Service, scroll down, and click the button that says “Subscribe to NTAS Email Alerts.”
Conduct A Threat Assessment
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), has a Professional Security Advisor (PSA) program. The PSA is a subject matter expert in infrastructure security, and will conduct a written threat assessment for your church, for free. Here is more information about the PSA program. CISA serves the country through regional offices. You can find your regional CISA office here. To contact the PSA in your CISA region to schedule a threat assessment, you can email your regional CISA office or send an email to email@example.com.
CISA also offers a security self-assessment for churches.
Establish Security Guidelines
Establishing security guidelines can provide a Local Church with a ready reference in a crisis, so the church can respond quickly to safeguard its people and its property. CISA offers a publication, Mitigating Attacks on Houses of Worship, to help churches develop a holistic security strategy, including cyber security. All Local Churches should review this publication.
Here are some sample guidelines. Churches differ in size, resources, and property ownership. Each Local Church should develop and adopt guidelines that make sense for how the church operates, and not expect the sample guidelines, as written, to work for every Local Church.
Questions about Visitors and Church Security
What is the best way to put visitors on notice that our church is attentive to security matters?
Ensuring each visitor is personally greeted upon entering the church is a good way to both monitor visitors to your church and to let the visitors know you are aware of their presence. Review The Power of Hello from CISA. Purchase security cameras and have a visible sign indicating that security cameras are in use. Additionally, post a sign that weapons are prohibited in your church. Check your state’s law for any specific requirements.
What if a visitor is making others uncomfortable, or something seems off?
First, focus on the individual’s behavior and not their appearance. Any congregant may remove themselves from the presence of an individual who is making them uncomfortable, and should inform church leadership of the situation. Church leaders can assess the situation guided by the church’s policies (for example, any provisions relating to expected and prohibited behavior in worship) and the security guidelines.
Can we ask a visitor who has become disruptive to leave the church?
Yes. And you may inform visitors who refuse to leave that they are trespassing and may be prosecuted. Do not attempt to physically restrain the individual or physically force them to leave. Notify law enforcement, and if necessary, end the worship service or meeting. Note that any response to the visitor is likely being recorded.
Many of the recommendations here are to contact law enforcement. In our community, we have received a response from law enforcement that instructs or asks us to discontinue aspects of our public ministry that attract the attention of extremist groups and individuals. We do not believe that we will receive a sufficient response from law enforcement in the event we experience a violent or harassing event. What should we do?
There are very few “self-help” ways for churches to deal with harassing visitors, trespassers, or violent incidents, apart from taking the steps mentioned in this article and referenced resources to prevent it. Law enforcement officers are able to legally physically restrain individuals and legally physically remove individuals from church property. Churches and church members who elect to engage in these actions against visitors risk being criminally charged or having civil claims brought against them, as well as being injured and further targeted. The best practice continues to be to refer the incident to law enforcement. File a police report for each incident, regardless of whether the church receives a response.
Most police recognize that churches have First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution to practice their religion, including practicing all legal ministries. These rights can be limited only in neutral ways that do not discriminate against religious beliefs. Some examples of limitations that may be legal including zoning restrictions, and time/place/manner of expression limitations. Receiving the services of law enforcement, or having a report taken seriously, should not be contingent on the church acquiescing to the request of law enforcement to discontinue or alter a church’s ministry. UCC Local Churches who experience this should reach out to their Conference Minister, who can be in touch with me for further consultation and referral for additional legal advice.
The Insurance Board has a number of church safety resources on its Emergency Preparedness page, including links to a number of DHS and CISA resources. The IB’s Security Resource Guide is particularly helpful.
The information provided in this article is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult with an attorney.
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