When Predators Come to Church: How to Harness the Power of Situational Awareness

by | CFX Community, Security, Security Connections

On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley shot and killed 26 people, including an unborn child. He wounded 22 other people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and then killed himself. What grievance did this man have against this church?

Nothing. He was angry with his wife and her family. He wasn’t supposed to have any guns because of a domestic violence conviction against a previous wife. That conviction resulted in Kelley being court-martialed from the Air Force. You may not know it, but there’s a good chance that someone who attends your church has a connection to someone as mentally unstable and potentially violent as Devin Kelley.

So how can churches balance the need for safety with the desire to be welcoming and open to all? Leaders really have to strike a careful balance. We want to keep the doors open to everyone, but we also need to keep everyone safe. By being prepared but not paranoid, churches can create a safe space that still feels open to all.

It’s important to remember our main job as security leaders is to protect the flock. A great example of what that looks like is found in 1 Samuel 17:32-37:

David said to Saul, “Don’t let anyone lose hope because of that Philistine. I’ll go out and fight him.” Saul replied, “You aren’t able to go out there and fight that Philistine. You are too young. He’s been a warrior ever since he was a boy. But David said to Saul, “I’ve been taking care of my father’s sheep. Sometimes a lion or a bear would come and carry off a sheep from the flock. Then I would go after it and hit it. I would save the sheep it was carrying in its mouth. If it turned around to attack me, I would grab its hair. I would strike it down and kill it. In fact, I’ve killed both a lion and a bear. I’ll do the same thing to this Philistine. He isn’t even circumcised. He has dared the armies of the living God to fight him. The Lord saved me from the paw of the lion. He saved me from the paw of the bear. And he’ll save me from the powerful hand of this Philistine too.” Saul said to David, “Go. And may the Lord be with you.”

People in your congregation are facing threats you don’t know about. They have their own Goliaths. Don’t forget that not only was Goliath much taller than David, but he was also a trained warrior. Talk about a mismatch! People facing a Goliath often feel as Saul did – defeated before the fight even gets started. They need a David. They need you to be their David. 

It wasn’t by chance that God had David train as a shepherd and not a warrior, and it’s not by chance that you are training to be a safety shepherd for your flock. One of the easiest ways to immediately enhance physical safety in our churches is to practice situational awareness just as we would when we’re in unfamiliar surroundings. We must learn how to recognize potential threats, suspicious behaviors, and unusual activities without looking like we’re in panic mode. David didn’t panic – he just took care of business. 

Here are eight simple steps you can take to improve your situational awareness. 

  1. Pay attention to sounds and movements in your area. Sudden changes in people’s behavior or any unusual action alert us to a situation that needs to be monitored.
  2. Trust your instincts – I believe that those “gut checks” are really the Holy Spirit dropping instant wisdom on us when we need it the most.
  3. Check for people hovering around the children or youth areas who don’t have a legitimate reason to be there. If you can, post someone at entrances to these areas to be sure no one wanders in “accidentally”. 
  4. Teach your volunteers de-escalation skills: Your church may face an irate non-custodial parent who wants to take their child or an agitated guest. 
  5. This seems so obvious but gets overlooked – be aware of prior convictions, documented incidents of violence, or a history of criminal behavior among volunteers. Yes, God forgives and so we must, too. However, it doesn’t mean we don’t hold people accountable. It doesn’t mean we allow the opportunity to offend to happen again. It doesn’t mean restoring that person to a position where they victimized people.
  6. Don’t ignore it when people discuss inappropriate topics or extreme ideologies. Those are red flags, not someone just joking around. You don’t want to look back after something has happened and wish you’d checked that person out more closely.
  7. Adopt detailed policies to protect children and vulnerable adults. Background checks for volunteers are a must, as are procedures for handling potential abuse allegations. A great resource is your state’s agency that governs licensed daycare centers. 
  8. Decide who is responsible for directing safety responses during regular services and events, as well as in emergency situations. 

Situational awareness is also important to practice when you need to terminate a staff member, remove a volunteer, or confront an unsafe member or visitor. This is not a situation you want to enter into unprepared. In the case of terminating a staff member, consider consulting an attorney to be sure your reasons for termination are on sound legal footing in your jurisdiction. Other key considerations:

  • Don’t meet one-on-one. If the affected person gets hostile with the person who is delivering news they will not be happy to hear, the other person observe how this person is handling the situation and can take over to help de-escalate emotions if necessary.
  • Keep the meeting short and to the point. This is not an opportunity for them to try to change your mind. Be compassionate, but be firm. If you notice them becoming aggressive in any way, end the meeting. Be sure to retrieve keys or access cards if they have them.
  • Comply with any mandatory reporting requirements, but don’t stop there. Involve the appropriate authorities to protect victims AND future potential victims whether you are legally required to or not. Be the one who breaks the cycle of covering up wrongdoing in our churches. 
  • Church security teams are important but are not equipped to deal with potentially criminal situations. Consult counsel to know when you are a mandated reporter for certain crimes. When in doubt, involve the authorities. 

While it’s impossible to predict every threat, churches can enhance their security by practicing situational awareness, establishing solid emergency procedures, and nurturing a culture of preparedness. Just as David used his shepherding skills to protect his flock, church leaders are called to be vigilant shepherds in their own congregations. By equipping themselves and their volunteers with the right training and mindset, churches can provide a safe space that remains open and inviting a place where no one loses hope, and everyone can feel secure.

Lori Morrison is a member of her church’s security team, a retired private investigator, a former church staffer, and serves on the Worship Facility Editorial Advisory Board. Her training guide, “Reclaiming Sanctuary: Enhancing Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Safety in Our Churches” helps church leaders adopt a new mindset, build a customized strategy, and launch a sustainable plan for the protection of their flock. You can grab your copy  on Amazon here

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