A sanctuary by definition is a place of refuge and safety. It’s supposed to be a place where people can let down their guard and find respite and reprieve from the normal activities of life. And yet, in light of the recent tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in Texas, many are questioning the refuge and safety of our places of worship. On Sunday, November 6 as the horrific news spread like wild fire on cell phone news alerts, many people in my church came to talk to me or share with me their sadness. And every single person who messaged, called or talked to me had a similar question, “What if that happened here at our church? Are we prepared?”
Fortunately, about six months ago, we had some safety training from a very thoughtful evaluation and thorough training from a retired specialist who has worked for several police departments including the LAPD. However, in speaking with him on Sunday, we know we need to step up our preparedness to ensure that as people come onto our campus that we have done our due diligence to provide a safe environment…a sanctuary. Now, I think we all readily realize that even the best safety plans may not thwart the efforts of those wishing to unleash terror and harm; however, as a matter of stewardship we need to do whatever we can to ensure our places of worship are as safe as possible.
Here are some things to consider in getting your church ready in the event of an emergency or attack.
1) Consult with professionals to develop and implement an emergency response plan
Contact your local police department, fire department, or even local emergency management and seek counsel on how to develop an emergency response plan for your church. Most local emergency agencies will gladly assist churches. In most churches I’ve led, we had several police officers and emergency responders who were more than willing to offer advice and assistance in developing and implementing a safety strategy.
2) Ensure front-line volunteers and staff are trained
Key staff should know details of the emergency response plan. After the shooting in Sutherland Springs, I received a call from our retired police officer who realized that we needed more people involved and trained in our plan. He recognized a flaw in our plan.
Training with laypeople, greeters and ushers are especially important. These should be some of the first people we train. Equipping ushers and greeters on how to recognize suspicious behavior and what to do as a primary response in the event of any emergency is essential. A good emergency action plan prepares front-line volunteers and key people on how to respond.
3) Clearly communicate the plan
Use your publications and announcements or other creative means to communicate your plan. Perhaps an insert with a campus map and building layouts would be helpful. Indicate emergency exits and give tips on how to respond in the event of emergencies. If possible, you may want to test your plan with a group of people to see if there are holes in your plan. For example, I know of one church that had a designated safe room but when they tested their plan, they realized the door would not lock from the inside and the window to the outside was jammed shut. The phone on the landline didn’t work either. So, they made the needed corrections.
I have to admit, I feel somewhat uneasy in writing this blog article; however, I felt compelled to do so because I know of very few churches that have an emergency response plan. As leaders, we must do as much as possible to provide a “sanctuary” if we want to engage people with the Good News.
My heart breaks for those that have been impacted by the violence that we have witnessed recently. I believe to the core of my being that discipleship to Jesus can resolve all of our problems. So, let’s work together to make more disciples. Let’s labor to bring God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.