By The Rev. Ginny Aebischer, Assistant to the Bishop
South Carolina Synod leaders gathered for conversation and prayer on Thursday, November 30, 2017 at Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Columbia around the topic of violence in our society and safety in our congregations. This workshop/conversation was led by Bishop Herman Yoos, Assistant to the Bishop Ginny Aebischer, Assistant to the Bishop Eric Wolf and Director of Evangelical Mission Rick Carter. Our intentions were to have conversation around the fears and concerns that we have heard and experienced in our Synod Churches and to work together on best practices for addressing these concerns. We are very thankful to Pastor Fred Suhr and the people of Christus Victor for making space for us; to Pastor Leroy Cannon for making the arrangements for our guest presenter, Deputy Gabr from the Richland County Police Department; and to our leaders who made the time to gather for this important conversation.
Resources, which were provided at the event, are available on this page. Also included is the outline that we used for the conversation which includes the scripture passages. We adjusted the times for different parts but this was our basic outline. Also included are our group notes on Concerns, Best Practices and the recommendations from the Police Officer. You are welcome to use any of these resources to assist your congregations in having conversations about safety in the church. We hope these are helpful in fostering a lower anxiety, and more of Christ’s peace in our places of worship.
Some of the safety concerns expressed were…
- So many doors in our churches
- Concealed weapons
- Parking lot safety, especially at night
- Vulnerability of staff and volunteers early or late when it may still be dark
- Finding unlocked or even open doors.
- People with PTSD and what this environment does to them
- People with concealed weapons but no training (or little training; or unused training)
- Overanxious attitudes
- People unwilling to have the necessary conversations
- Identifying emergencies
- Money for security measures
Some of the safety best practices shared were…
- Lock all doors except the main church door
- Security cameras
- Listen to the experts and don’t pretend to be one
- Plan for emergencies/ Develop a safety committee
- Schedule roving council members to check on classrooms, bathrooms, etc.
- Have greeters in the parking lot with walkie-talkies to greet but also to show vigilance
- Have a team or person to check on doors
- Install a doorbell ring with camera on each door. These have been advertised and cost about $199
- Train people to use Tasers instead of guns
- Install a Bluetooth buzz in system
- Employ security guards/work with local police or school resource persons
- In downtown Columbia learn about the work of City Center Partnership which can be called upon to assist in getting people to their cars safely after a large event at the church, particularly at night
- Keep the congregation well informed about what you are doing – always lowers anxiety if people know what is happening
- Know your people and community.
- Pay attention to those around you and if you see something, say something
- Hold training for ushers or others in the congregation so they can help appropriately
- Hold hazard drills
- Integrate issues of safety into your overall mission so that this issue is not raised above everything else, but is part of the mission of the church
- Attend the Safety in the Sanctuary Training in Newberry County (perhaps next held on January 29)
- Create a parish covenant about weapons and who can carry.
- Remember that officers are willing to come and talk to groups in your church about safety
Deputy Gabr’s Safety Recommendations
While the multiple doors in churches make it difficult to manage safety there are things we can all do to provide more security.
- Train Greeters to shake hands and look people in the eyes when they come in. Having someone who is paying close attention and looking at people is a deterrent.
- Keep the church and area around the church well lit, even when no one is there.
- Keep alert! (Sounds like an Advent theme) complacency is not good. People who have lived in a community a long time tend to think that it can’t happen in their neighborhood, but that is not true. It can happen anywhere.
- Install cameras. Cameras are a deterrent.
- Have people greet people in your parking lot and have them wear a reflective traffic safety vest.
- For large gatherings, especially at night, call the non-emergency police number or 911 and ask for escorts to help get people safely to their cars after the event.
- Keep your property well maintained inside and outside. This is also a deterrent. It shows that there are people who care.
- Check into government grants set up to help churches and non-profits with safety cameras/alarms etc.
- Lock your cars and don’t leave valuables in the car when you go into church
- If you are a gun owner take your gun inside your house at night. Do not leave it in the car.
- If you have a garage, park your car inside your garage and keep it locked.
- Don’t leave any backpack in the car even if it has nothing in it. It can attract attention and a break-in
- Don’t go to the car alone. If you are choir practice, etc. take a friend out to the car with you, or leave as a group.
- Even if you have a gun permit you must have permission in writing from the pastor/council to bring the gun on the church property. The church must have this permission filed and you must carry a copy of the permission on your person
Scriptures shared throughout the day included:
Isaiah 41:10 “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
Psalm 23:4b – 5 “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. 5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
John 16:33 “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”
Excerpts from The ELCA social statement For Peace in God's World - Shared with attendees of the Congregation Safety Conversation.
Do you have a communication plan for when crises arise? Many churches don’t, and, as a result, they make mistakes that can dissolve trust and brake relationships with the community around them.