Security, hospitality go hand in hand for parishes

By Susan Klemond

St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Columbia, South Carolina, is welcoming pilgrims as they pass through a diocesan-designated Holy Door to pray and receive sacraments at the church. But not everyone comes to pray — a problem that involves both hospitality and security, according to pastor Father Gary Linsky.

Recently, the downtown parish has dealt with a rash of incidents, both disruptive and damaging. “We want to be welcoming, but it does sometimes make it a little more challenging,” he said. 

Despite the problems, St. Peter’s opens its doors daily — including the Holy Door — as Pope Francis has asked all Catholic churches to do following recent terrorist attacks. St. Peter’s and other parishes are looking for ways to reach out to the stranger while maintaining safety at the same time. Some are working to identify visitors with less-than-friendly motives by training ushers and greeters, installing cameras, hiring security and monitoring entrances.

‘Hand in glove’

Parishes should be ready to welcome visitors as they would welcome the Holy Family, said Mary Bosscher, a White Bear Lake, Minnesota-based administration consultant who has worked on security and other issues at many parishes in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese.

“Our hearts should be an inn where we are welcoming Jesus and others, and our personal residence and our parish church (a spiritual home) are like an inn where we either welcome or don’t welcome people,” Bosscher said.

Most visitors come to a parish because they are looking for a new church, said Peter Johnson, founder of the Minneapolis-based Archway Defense, which offers on-site security training for churches. Visitors who come for other reasons may not comprehend or respect the church and how it operates. 

At St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis, parish operations director Don Grant sees hospitality and security as “hand in glove.” With the goals of welcoming everyone and also more effectively assisting visitors in need, the parish is opening its gathering space one morning a week to offer coffee, donuts and social service assistance. At the same time, the parish is assessing and upgrading its overall security, he said. 

Taking responsibility 

Directive from Francis

During his Angelus message on Nov. 18 — just days after attacks in Paris left 130 people dead — Pope Francis preached about the need for hospitality amid security risks.

“There are places in the world in which doors are not locked, there still are. But there are so many where armored doors have become the norm. We must not give in to the idea that we must apply this system to our whole life, to the life of the family, of this city, of society, much less to the life of the Church. That would be terrible! An inhospitable Church, like a family closed off within itself, mortifies the Gospel and withers the world. No armored doors in the Church, none! Completely open!

“The symbolic management of ‘doors’ — of thresholds, of passages, of borders — has become crucial. The door must protect, of course, but not reject. The door must not be forced but on the contrary, one asks permission, because hospitality shines in the freedom of welcoming, and dims in the arrogance of invasion.”

In a church facility, hospitality and security grow when parishioners and staff treat their parish like their home and take responsibility for it, Bosscher said.

“It’s a question, as church members, of treating [the parish like] our spiritual home and seeing ourselves as a spiritual family that is anxious to welcome new members,” she said.

When they see the parish as a spiritual family, parishioners and staff will be more aware of who is coming in and can better identify guests as those who want to participate and have a gentle attitude, Bosscher said. 

Parishioners at St. Didacus in Sylmar, California, see the parish as their spiritual home, said Father Robert Garon, pastor of the large, suburban parish. Area gangs don’t bother the parish because gang members’ mothers are parishioners, he said.

Six years ago, a staff member defended the parish when someone tried to steal the tabernacle — including the pedestal to which it was attached. As the thief dragged the tabernacle toward his car, the 5-foot staff member yelled at him and hit him with her purse until he dropped it and ran away, Father Garon said. 

Encouraging the members of the congregation to voice their security concerns is also a good idea, Johnson said. St. Didacus has benefited from the solutions parishioners have proposed, Father Garon said. “We should, as a church, be more aware of [security issues], because you have more people who have their eyes open regarding some of these things,” he said.

Policies and procedures

Factors contributing to effective hospitality and security include increasing order in parishes through essential basic policies and procedures, and ensuring common-ground understanding through clear communication, Bosscher said, adding that hospitality involves safety, cleanliness, order, good repair, the availability of clear information, and being both caring and vigilant.

Policies and procedures that improve both hospitality and security include being consistent with hours of operation, controlling who has building keys, monitoring traffic and controlling entrances, and training ushers and greeters to handle emergencies.

Hospitality in church communities should be appropriate for the time of day and for those who are invited, Bosscher said. Sunday morning hospitality will look different than that for evening faith formation or the school day.

As part of their hospitality plan, parishes should have a system for greeting newcomers, Johnson said. Bosscher added that providing a process to help staff identify and assist guests and determine their involvement or purpose at the location is important.

“If they are doing that kind of thing, then the parishioners are going to naturally become very aware of who is coming in and who’s going out, and visitors will feel known, noticed and welcomed on a personal and facility level,” Bosscher said.

Hospitality that truly welcomes the stranger will make hostile strangers feel uncomfortable, Bosscher said. Appropriate interaction between people is facilitated by security. “A thief doesn’t want to share fellowship and eat donuts with you.”

Be prepared

Parishes with good security also can be very welcoming, said Johnson, who added that effective ushers and greeters should be able to recognize cues that a visitor intends to do harm. They also should be able to provide reasonable mitigation of medical and other crises. 

It is important to prepare for crisis situations through good hospitality, which includes having ushers, staff and leaders learn responses to five test cases, Bosscher said. 

“Are we going to wait until we have an intruder and say, ‘What do we do now?’” Bosscher said. “Think ahead — plan ahead for hospitality — then you’re already put together for crisis.”

Parishes should evaluate the cost of improving hospitality, but Johnson said security enhancements are usually cost effective. 

St. Peter’s parish in South Carolina undoubtedly will see many strangers pass through its Holy Door in the coming year, and leaders, staff and parishioners will be welcoming if not also watchful, Father Linsky said. 

“We must keep the doors open and demonstrate to the world that Jesus’ arms on the cross and his own will were open and he received on the cross the suffering and sins of the world,” he said. “Our Church has to remain open as were his arms.”


Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.