Working with churches big and small for over a decade, I’ve discovered that both face similar hurdles in developing their risk management programs it all starts with one person. Jim Theis, Director of Facilities and Security at Westwood Community Church in Excelsior Minnesota, initially started on his own. Jim now oversees a team of over 50 volunteers. I sat down with him to hear how he got started from a one-man team to a robust security program.

SC: Jim, starting a church safety program from scratch over a decade ago with just yourself must have been quite a journey. Can you share some memories from those early days at Westwood Community Church and how you approached the initial setup? 

JT: Sure. It was very difficult in the beginning because I underestimated the paradigm shift required going from zero to full security. I also had difficulty explaining the ultimate vision in a way that church leadership could understand.  I created obstacles by not understanding their perspective and not being as patient as I needed to be to make the changes.

SC: In the beginning, what was the biggest hurdle you encountered while establishing the church’s security program? 

JT: Helping leadership understand that my intention was not to create a police force but a protective ministry.

SC: There’s a notion that leaders of church security programs might be more effective if they aren’t necessarily former law enforcement or military personnel. From your perspective, how crucial is a security-specific background for someone leading a church’s security ministry?  

JT: Personally, I don’t think it’s crucial to have a military or police background.  While that may be helpful depending on your church’s culture, in my case, I developed a keen sense of our congregation and determined how to form my team around that DNA.  The team we created is there to be protective and to enhance the worship experience, not to present as an armed force.

SC: Reflecting on the growth and evolution of Westwood’s security program, especially now with multiple locations and a large congregation, is there anything you would do differently if you had the chance to start over?  

JT: I would not introduce firearms into the team as quickly as I did.  I would develop the overall mission ahead of creating the team, establishing de-escalation above force and firearms.

SC: Given your role as the Director of Facilities and Security, why do you believe it’s vital for a church to designate a specific individual to lead security efforts and empower them to make decisions?  

JT: If you have multiple roles, the leader doesn’t have the time and energy this ministry deserves and requires in order to be successful.  In my circumstances, I’m blessed enough to have leadership which has given me enough facility support structure to allow me to focus on my security obligations.

SC: A few years back, you chose an unconventional route with the Non-Profit Security Grant Program funds, opting for a mass casualty event simulation instead of the typical upgrades like card access systems. How did you coordinate this extensive exercise with local emergency services, and what inspired this direction?  

JT: By the grace of God, I had developed a relationship with the city of Chanhassen Fire Chief, Don Johnson.  He was interested in how this may have helped his emergency agencies and response, so was on board from the beginning.  It was difficult to get other agencies on board, but once it was explained, they recognized the value to their own teams. 

The reason I went this route is because I was very interested in making my team safe and helping them be a powerful tool for police and other agencies in the event of this type of emergency.  I wanted to make sure we had a clear understanding of how this type of situation may play out and how the hand-off of authority was accomplished.  Once that hand-off was completed, what was our role and responsibility then.  The last thing I wanted was to have our team be a liability rather than asset.  I was also interested in understanding response time and protocols so that we can plan accordingly.

SC: Undergoing such a large-scale simulation reveals vulnerabilities in a security program. Through this exercise, what key insights or lessons did you gain about enhancing church security?  

JT: My biggest takeaway was emergency response is not quick to arrive.  Until they come, we have to take care of our flock in the best way we can.  Here are some enhancements to our on-boarding and training processes which came out of this:

  1. A deep dive into building layout and room locations.
  2. Better understanding and practice of “controlling the scene”.
  3. Communication techniques (radio and verbal).
  4. Introducing basic life support to be a stopgap until emergency medical arrives, we learned paramedics will not enter a warm scene!

Additionally, I learned that you never know if your assumptions of how your team will react to a deadly force incident are true until you put them in that pressured situation. 

SC: Transitioning to managing security across multiple sites, you’ve implemented an application and interview process for prospective security team members. Why is this selection method important, and how might it benefit other churches considering the same approach?   

JT: We do an application so we can understand who they are prior to interviewing them.  We ask a series of questions to be sure their heart is in the ministry and not someone just wanting to be a “Rambo”.  Also, during the interview we can judge how well they will fit into each community’s culture. Additionally, we do a thorough background check prior to allowing someone onto the team.  We have had a previous experience with a team member who ended up with some elements in his background which would have posed a liability to the church.  I was forced to ask him to resign from the team after already serving, and that was difficult for me and embarrassing for him.

SC: With the unique challenges of overseeing a multi-site security ministry, what wisdom can you share that might assist our readers, perhaps those at the helm of similar security programs?  

JT: Pay attention to each facility and be present.  The largest struggle I have is dividing my time between each site so that each team feels recognized, supported, and valued.  Policies must be transferrable and consistent from location to location.

SC: Last question: What is your one piece of advice that you think all leaders should know?  

JT: Slow down, do your homework before requesting to start a program, and create a program around your church’s DNA, knowing that it may start smaller than you want, but will grow as long as you are patient and persistent.  Remember, it’s a ministry. 

Jim Theis is Director of Facilities and Security at Westwood Community Church. He began his security career over 15 years ago by developing the Westwood security program, which has been used as a model for church security programs across the US. In 2022, Jim coordinated with local and regional law enforcement and emergency management teams to create a multi organization Active Shooter live simulation, the first of its kind in the Carver County area focused on mega-church vulnerabilities. This simulation assisted in training not only his own security team, but emergency and law enforcement personnel across three cities, and included over 150 participants. Jim is a certified Verbal Judo instructor, a Certified Alice Active Shooter Response trainer and is the Founder of Bold North Judgment Training that provides Shoot Don’t Shoot Training.

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