On March 27, 2023, a chill ran down America’s spine when Aiden Hale, born Audrey Elizabeth Hale, open fired on the Presbyterian Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. Three innocent children and three adults became victims of another heartbreaking incident at an American church school, devastating our communities and igniting necessary discussions about church safety and security. This event resonated so deeply that by June, CNN published an article with a chilling headline: “One of the most dangerous hours in America is now 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
In the aftermath of these tragedies, my team and I received numerous requests from churches across America, seeking training on active shooter survival. We obliged, but it’s crucial to understand that mass attacks, though high impact, are incredibly rare. Research by Dr. James Densley and Dr. Jillian Peterson of The Violence Project reveals that since 1966, there have been 190 mass shootings in 57 years and only 6.4% of active assailants have chosen a church for their location to carry out a deadly attack.
Navigating High-Impact, Low-Probability Scenarios and Beyond
These statistics should lead your church to question what other scenarios we should prepare our staff, volunteers, and congregation for, to create a more holistic safety and security culture. Let’s turn our attention to the very real possibilities of church goers fainting during Sunday service, a child wandering into an off-limits area, a natural disaster, or a suspicious person found in a restricted area in your church. In light of these, I’ll discuss five essential areas of training for your church that go beyond planning for high impact, low probability events.
Beyond dealing with immediate physical threats, crisis training involves supporting high-risk families and individuals grappling with mental health issues, chemical dependencies, and addictions. The utility of this training hit home for me when I took a mental health first aid course years ago. The knowledge I gained there was crucial in dealing with individuals suffering from mental health conditions. Equipping your team with the necessary skills to handle such situations helps foster a supportive church environment. Also, emergency preparedness, a component of crisis training, equips your team with the know-how to handle severe weather and natural disasters. It provides them with insights on your evacuation procedures, emergency shelter locations, and emergency response, creating a prepared and resilient community.
Interpersonal conflict is a common occurrence in any group setting, and the church community is no exception. Conflict de-escalation training provides your team with the tools to handle tense situations skillfully. Be it managing an irate father demanding to see his child against a legal order or diffusing a heated argument in the church parking lot, this training ensures your staff can intervene effectively, maintaining the sanctity and peace of the church environment.
Medical emergencies are frequent and can strike anytime, anywhere. During my visit to a church on the West Coast, I noticed multiple AEDs (automated external defibrillators) on the walls. However, upon inquiry, I found that many staff members were untrained in their use. That experience underlined the importance of training church staff to handle such emergencies. Understanding how to use life-saving equipment and recognizing symptoms of common medical emergencies like dehydration, allergic reactions, and heart attacks can make a life-saving difference.
Training your teams to spot suspicious behavior can be both sensitive and challenging. When we developed our threat detection course, we ensured it was grounded in scripture, focusing on behavioral indicators rather than outward appearances. This approach allows your team to differentiate between attendees needing guidance and those with harmful intent. Engaging in conversation with the visitors, like a simple “my name is Simon, I’m one of the volunteers here. What brings you to the church today?” can provide crucial clues about their intent, helping the church serve its community while maintaining security.
Child safety is a pressing concern in any community setting, churches included. Some faith denominations, like the Episcopal Church, already have specific programs like the Safe Church Program in place. However, during large events like VBS, thorough screening may be challenging. Here, having clear policies and guidelines around who can serve, where they can serve, and when they can serve is critical. An emphasis on child safety also involves creating a culture that encourages reporting of any suspicious activities. Empowering your staff and volunteers to do the right thing can be instrumental in safeguarding children against physical and sexual abuse.
Fostering a Culture of Safety
Implementing training in these areas encourages a strong security culture, creating a safe and secure environment for all members of your church community. The first step towards creating a safe and secure environment is fostering a strong security culture. Regular training in areas like crisis management, conflict de-escalation, medical response, and child safety can empower your team, ensuring they know when and how to act. When these elements come together, they create a robust safety net for all who enter your church doors, providing a secure and nurturing environment.
Simon Osamoh, a British American, stands as one of the nation’s premier specialists in securing houses of worship. Leveraging over a decade as a serious crime Detective in England, he relocated to the U.S to spearhead Counter Terrorism at Minnesota’s Mall of America. As the founder of Kingswood Security Consulting and the Worship Security Academy he has devoted over a decade to safeguarding non-profits and Churches. Simon has penned best-selling books including Securing Church Operations and 10 Powerful Strategies for Conflict De-escalation. As the host of the Worship Security Academy podcast, he provides practical, engaging security advice. Reach Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org