Balancing Church Safety: Insights from Eagle Brook Church’s Director of Safety and Security, Wes Pederson

by | Facilities, HoW team profile, Security, Security Connections

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Wes Pederson, Director of Safety and Security at Eagle Brook Church in Minnesota, one of the top five churches in the country. Together, we delved into the intricacies of ensuring the safety of twelve campuses and the well-being of over 70,000 weekly worshippers.

Eagle Brook Church is recognized as one of the largest churches in the country. Could you share more about the church’s mission and the services it offers?

Eagle Brook operates as one unified church, manifested across twelve distinct locations, prominently situated throughout the Twin City Metro area and in Rochester, Minnesota. Our primary mission, which drives every action and decision, is “Empowered by God to reach others for Christ”. Our essence lies in fostering relationships with God through Jesus Christ, assimilating individuals into a Christ-centered community, and nurturing their faith.

Our foundational beliefs are the bedrock upon which Eagle Brook is built and can be categorized into three core areas: beliefs about God, beliefs about people, Beliefs about the Church, the Bible, and Christ’s return. We are committed to cultivating relationships with God and among people within the Christ-centered communion of the Church, given that relationship is the core purpose for which we were all created by God.

On average, Eagle Brook warmly welcomes approximately 40,000 attendees in person weekly, with holiday gatherings, such as Christmas and Easter, seeing a surge to between 60,000 and 90,000 attendees. Additionally, our services reach a widespread online audience, with an average of 70,000 to 100,000 devices tuning in weekly, either via live streaming or through replays of our weekend services.

How long have you been in your current role as Director of Safety and Security?

I’ve been a part of the Eagle Brook Church team for just over 13 years. In my initial 7 years, I served as the Pastor of Ministry. Beyond my roles in the church, I also volunteer as a Chaplain for a local Police & Fire Department and hold a position on the board of the County Peer Support group. This group is instrumental in providing Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) support and resources to our invaluable First Responders.

Managing over 300 volunteers each week to maintain safety in the church must present numerous challenges. Could you speak to some of the difficulties you encounter?

Relying on volunteers invariably means contending with the fluctuations of their availability. Nonetheless, I’ve observed that the majority of our volunteer security team members exhibit remarkable dedication and regard their roles as a priority. They comprehend that their service is a form of ministry, security ministry. With the overarching goal to cultivate safe and secure spaces. This enables attendees to experience God’s plans for them with minimal distractions.

Given the sizable congregation at Eagle Brook Church, how does managing security here differ from overseeing safety and security in a smaller, more intimate setting?

We are labeled as a Mega Church primarily due to the number of locations we operate. However, each location of Eagle Brook Church is a unique community with its own distinctive atmosphere. Understandably, our larger buildings necessitate a more extensive team to address safety elements, compared to our smaller ones, but the level of security focus remains constant across all. In theory, larger locations, with more attendees, could necessitate a greater number of security volunteers. However, we maintain a uniform approach to security, allocating equivalent focus, resources, and energy, irrespective of the size of the location.

Could you elaborate on some of the challenges that you encounter in ensuring the safety and security of the church and its attendees?

Whether addressing new hires, current staff, or speaking in public forums, I regularly emphasize that our biggest security risk often stems from our own people, our staff. This is predominantly due to a False Sense of Security and Complacency. Ideally, staff and volunteers at places of worship are primarily people-focused, embodying a pastoral ethos of care, ministry, and sharing hope, which is crucial and should always be our core intent. However, this often leads to what I term ‘pastoral tunnel vision,’ obscuring potential risks by not considering the ‘What could go wrong?’ aspect.

In this mode, our holistic focus on pastoral care can sometimes blind us to potential risks to ourselves and others. The challenge, and often the most intricate part to navigate, is enlightening pastoral and other church staff on how their roles are pivotal in creating secure environments. It’s about making them realize that they contribute not only to the safety of the attendees but also to maintaining a secure working environment for themselves. Balancing this awareness with our primary pastoral responsibilities is crucial in fostering both a safe and spiritually nourishing space.

Security often hinges on cultivating a robust culture centered around risk management. Could you share some strategies and approaches you employ to foster such a culture within the organization?

In my experience, merely instructing people, be they staff or volunteers, about their role in safety and security doesn’t suffice. However, illustrating how security intertwines with the mission usually resonates more profoundly with them. For those of us specializing in security, the approach shouldn’t spotlight security itself but emphasize how it underpins and doesn’t obstruct the ministry.

The implementation might vary at each church, but ultimately, staff and volunteers need to comprehend that, while security might not be their primary focus, they are integral in establishing secure environments. This comprehension is crucial so that the emphasis remains.

Given the recent uptick in mass violence incidents at places of worship, it’s clear there are risks beyond just active violence scenarios. In light of this, where should a church prioritize its risk mitigation efforts in the upcoming year?

While incidents of active shooters and terrorism are, statistically speaking, among the least likely security-related issues places of worship will encounter, it remains crucial to prioritize preparation and training for such events. Conversely, occurrences like medical emergencies, mental health crises, domestic disputes, and substance abuse are far more prevalent and likely. Our world, marred by various forms of brokenness, poses numerous threats to the divine endeavors pursued through places of worship.

Given this landscape, my advice to places of worship is to either initiate a security ministry—Simon’s book How To Speak With Your Leader About Church Security is an excellent guide for starting this journey—or to fortify an existing one. This involves meticulous planning, regular training, consistent practice, and a commitment to enhancing the capability to foster safe environments. Balancing focus between the most and least likely scenarios is key to building a holistic, resilient security approach that supports our spiritual missions.

Could you share your three pieces of advice for any church leader seeking to enhance the security within their place of worship?

1. Simplify Your Approach: We’re all familiar with the “Keep It Simple Stupid” (KISS) principle. I modify it slightly to “Keep It Stupid Simple” (still KISS). In my experience, some church security leaders, perhaps eager to demonstrate their grasp of security concepts, have instituted overly intricate programs filled with numerous code words, phrases, and complicated protocols. This complexity can hinder the swift execution of emergency procedures during a real crisis. 

2. Integrate with Ministry Culture: Instead of imposing a security ministry atop your existing ministry culture, strive to weave it seamlessly within. If your security culture forces overall cultural shifts, it may clash with the church’s objectives and likely encounter resistance. Aim for harmonious integration, allowing the security ministry to enhance rather than obstruct the ministry’s goals.

3. Address and Avoid Common Risks: Encourage staff and volunteers to understand their pivotal role in safeguarding your place of worship. Effective, heartfelt communication, either individually or in groups, is crucial to illustrating HOW they play a role and WHY it aligns with the mission. When other church leaders grasp the HOW and WHY, they can better instruct their teams to maintain vigilance and curb complacency, thus mitigating common risks like a false sense of security among staff and volunteers.

Simon Osamoh serves as the editor of Security Connections and is nationally recognized for his work in safeguarding houses of worship. He began his career in England, spending 14 years as a Detective specializing in serious and organized crime, before moving to the United States to lead Counter Terrorism at the Mall of America in Minnesota. Simon founded Kingswood Security Consulting and the Worship Security Academy, aimed at providing security solutions to houses of worship. He volunteers his knowledge as security advisor to Westwood Community Church, where he has served for over a decade. He is the author of two bestselling books and the host of the Worship Security Academy podcast.

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