Training Programs Aim to Keep Churches Safe


CASTRO VALLEY, Calif. — A life-size statue of Jesus was stolen from the Church of the Transfiguration’s garden in Castro Valley on May 19.

Other recent news stories tell of parishioners donating precious treasures to make new monstrances after historic ones were snatched and tabernacles emptied to save consecrated Hosts from desecration.

How can churches respond to safety and security needs in modern life?

Incidents of crime in churches can range from harmless but bothersome disruptions to liturgies to greater problems, including thefts, kidnappings or assaults. As with any crime, perpetrators can have a variety of motives.

To cope with this problem, there are various programs dedicated to train and facilitate security in churches. Specialists in this area say religious institutions are considered soft targets because their members are often unsuspecting and unprepared for attacks. They encourage churches to offer their staff and parishioners training to prepare for attacks to security, as well as medical and other emergencies that could occur in church buildings and parking lots.

“There’s a perception that churches aren’t prepared to defend themselves, much like schools in the U.S.,” said Laran Wilke, owner of the Longmont, Colo.-based company SafeWorship, which trains church security teams. “Over time that has changed for schools, but churches are the next big soft target — large venues with unprepared people.”

One such venue is the Vatican, which has most recently seen activists steal Baby Jesus from the Nativity scene and Pope Benedict XVI take a tumble after a woman knocked him down. The most famous security breach involved the assassination attempt on the life of St. John Paul II in 1981.

James Nicholson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2001 to 2005, recognizes the challenges churches can face in maintaining security, starting with the Vatican.

“The Vatican and, really, all other churches and religious facilities, probably throughout the world — including in our country — remain extremely vulnerable, because it’s virtually impossible for them to serve their mission as places for people to go to worship and thus be accessible to the public without onerous security hurdles that they have to jump through,” he noted.

U.S. Incidents

But not only Rome is affected.

Carl Chinn, who speaks to faith-based operators and law-enforcement groups about ministry security, began in 1999 to compile data about criminal incidents at religious institutions because he was unable to find all the information in government sources. Many incidents take place in church parking lots, said Chinn, who is based in Colorado Springs, Colo., and shares his data with church security professionals, pastors, law enforcement and others on his website.

 We are not called to live in fear, but neither should pastors and parishes live in denial that attacks and other crises are possible, said Jimmy Meeks, a Fort Worth, Texas, pastor and police officer, who, along with Chinn and retired Army Lt. Col. David Grossman, leads Sheepdog Seminars to help U.S. church leaders create safe environments in their churches. “The main thing the [Christian] church has to do is wake up to the reality of the day we are in,” he said.

Safety and security training protects human life and gives parishioners peace of mind, said Peter Johnson, founder of Minneapolis-based Archway Defense, which offers onsite training for churches.

“There’s nothing more valuable than human life,” he said. “Obviously, as Catholics, that’s why we defend life as strongly as we do.”

But awareness is often the first step.

Safety and security sometimes end up on a church’s backburner because clergy are aware of the need but don’t know what to do, said Zach Glman, vice president of insurance provider Horizon Agency Inc., in Eden Prairie, Minn.

“We’re living in a very changing environment where threats may not be what they traditionally were. We have a way to prepare people for that threat.”


Empowering Parishioners

Training is not only designed to help parishes avert or mitigate security attacks but also to deal with medical and other emergencies quickly and effectively, Johnson observed. Many parishes, he said, now have automated external defibrillators (AEDs), but many might need to train more parishioners to use them. “If you’ve never had any experience on it, that learning curve shouldn’t come when somebody’s on the ground.”  

Because the national average police response time is 11 minutes, parishioners need to be empowered to act in a crisis before law enforcement or other first responders arrive, Johnson added. Sixty percent of active threats are stopped before police arrive, he added, quoting FBIstatistics.

Those trained to provide both overt and covert security and whose presence is known, if not noticeable, are a good combination for churches, Wilke of SafeWorship said. “Without that, you’re rolling a dice on whether somebody will actually step up and do what’s needed to stop the attack.”

For example, Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago posts two private security guards inside the cathedral when it’s open and, frequently, another security guard in its parking lot. This is because the 140-year-old house of worship draws people from all walks of life, including many street people present in the neighborhood, said Msgr. Dan Mayall, rector and pastor.

Aside from when a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the cathedral vestibule 13 years ago (no one was injured), there have been very few incidents, Msgr. Mayall said.

Safety and security training isn’t much different from fire prevention, Johnson suggested. He explained that he isn’t trying to train churchgoers to be SWAT teams, but, rather, to teach normal men and women to become aware of their surroundings and take charge in protecting parishioners.


For some, church security is more than a practical necessity. Rather, it is a way to live stewardship and use one’s gifts for God.

“Bagels and Bullets” is an informal club of 33 Jews who have met periodically for the past year to discuss firearms and safety at six Twin Cities synagogues, said David Magy, a group organizer. After breakfast, club members visit a shooting range. Though the club isn’t explicitly sanctioned by any of the synagogues, Magy said he considers his desire to protect one way he offers time, talent and treasure at his synagogue, which is developing an overall plan for handling possible attacks, as serious attacks haven’t happened.

Wilke also said he believes God is calling church members to be protectors. “People exist in your churches who have a heart and a desire to [provide security]; and if you’re not exploring that, giving them an outlet to express that, I think you’re missing out on some opportunities for those people.”

Paul Ives, a parishioner at St. Joseph Catholic Church in West St. Paul, Minn., said he believes security teams in parishes are worthwhile.

“I know other people who find more meaning in giving back to the Church [this way],” said Ives, a 22-year military veteran. “They’re not doing it because they’re paranoid, more because of what they don’t want to happen.”

Parish safety programs represent a good practical attempt at increasing safety, Nicholson affirmed. “We have enough difficulty getting people to go to Mass now — we don’t have to add a legitimate layer of being afraid to physically go there.”

Feeling safe in a religious institution is essential, Gilman agreed. “You can’t go into a place like that and have to worry that you’re going to become a victim of violence or that you’re not going to be taken care of if something happens to you,” he said. “You should feel safe in your church.”

Register correspondent Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.