by J. Christopher Murphy; Senior Associate, Merletti, Gonzales & Associates International Security Consultants
In the 1960s, there was a popular old gospel song entitled “Church Twice on Sunday and Once in the Middle of the Week.” Church was not only popular for spiritual growth, but also for fellowship and social interaction. It was a central part of life in many communities. It was a safe haven!
Over the last ten years, we have seen an increase in church shootings, bomb threats to synagogues, and attacks on mosques. Studies of these incidents reveal that there is no religious, racial, socioeconomic, or denominational commonality. Our places of worship in America have become places of violence, or so it would seem. Most studies do not point to religion as the target, but instead, specific issues with the assailant. The gathering of people in a house of worship at predictable times is a tempting target. The most recent deadly church attack occurred on November 5, 2017, at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The attack left twenty-six dead, and the motivation appeared to be domestic in nature. On May 17, 2015, Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina, suffered a racially motivated shooting that killed nine people. Whatever the motivation, and whatever the assailant’s state of mind, the outcome of such attacks is absolutely tragic. Clearly, these once safe havens are now vulnerable targets that attract individuals who are planning evil, instead of seeking redemption.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques need to have an assessment conducted to better understand the security gaps in their normal weekly activities. Larger churches with television ministries are particularly vulnerable, due to their wider exposure. Nursery and youth activities are areas of great concern. A robust background investigation should be standard for all who work with youth and infants. Evacuation plans for violence, weather-related crises, and fires should be given strong attention. A security team should be designated and trained. Even if uniformed law enforcement directs traffic at a worship location, this does not substitute for an internal security team. High-value assets, both human and material, should be identified. The crisis management policy should specifically identify these assets and the responses associated with those assets. A well-trained security team that uses measured responses can effectively address unusual incidents, without losing sight of the intentional hospitality of these institutions. Leadership needs to be empowered to take physical action, even if the incident is happening on “sacred ground.”
These realities should warn the leadership of all holy places, regardless of size or location, to develop a plan to help protect their members. The plan should be documented, and training for that plan should be regularly scheduled.
We encourage all clergy, lay leaders, and concerned congregants to be deliberate in developing crisis management plans for their places of worship.