Keeping Churchgoers Safe: Strategies for Houses of Worship

Prevention strategy helps churches deal with many security issues, beyond reacting to rare terror attacks.

Police cars remain parked at Good Shepherd Catholic Community church on January 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas.
Police cars remain parked at Good Shepherd Catholic Community church on January 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (photo: Emil Lippe / Getty)

During the past decade, Catholic churches and other houses of worship seriously considered how they would respond to “active-shooter” attacks on their campuses, but the greater prevalence of other kinds of problems underscores the need to create a broader culture of prevention, security experts say.

A gunman who held a rabbi and three congregation members hostage in a Texas synagogue last month brought renewed attention to domestic terrorism at houses of worship. But less publicized incidents, including a February domestic violence-related shooting in Colorado, and numerous acts of vandalism at Catholic institutions reveal a broader range of threats to houses of worship considered “soft targets” because of their accessibility to the public.  

The words “‘security’ and ‘active shooter’ have become a synonymous phrase,” said Mike McCarty, CEO of SafeMinistry Solutions in Danville, Indiana. “When it happens, it’s a big deal,” he said. “You need to be prepared, but we’re dealing with these other issues — the vandalism, the child sexual abuse — all of these other issues are happening week after week after week.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these and other security problems related to mental-health issues, suicidal ideation and domestic violence, and these problems reach churches, which reflect the broader community, he said. 

McCarty and other security experts discussed church security threats and solutions for this article, along with benefits of a prevention mindset, and collaborating on safety with other community sources and the federal government, which offers guidance and grants.

Between 1999 and 2018, there have been 275 deadly-force incidents at Catholic institutions, representing 14% of all incidents during that time period at faith-based organizations, according to statistics compiled by the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Faith Based Security Network, a nonprofit network of security and law enforcement professionals. Deadly-force incidents are defined as abductions and attempts, attacks, suspicious deaths, suicides and deadly-force intervention/protection. 

Though data wasn’t available on the percentage of U.S. Catholic parishes that have a plan for  defense against domestic terror attacks, 62% of Protestant pastors surveyed in 2020 had planned defense against these attacks, according to a study by Nashville-based Lifeway Research, which conducts surveys about churches and culture. 

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as acts dangerous to human life occurring primarily in the U.S territorial jurisdiction which violate U.S. or state law and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population; influence government policy by intimidation or coercion; or affect government conduct by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. 

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker let British national Malik Faisal Akram into Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, before a Jan. 15 morning service because he appeared to need shelter, according to ABC News. Akram held Cytron-Walker and three congregation members hostage for nearly 11 hours. The hostages eventually reached safety, but Akram was killed by an FBI team. One of the former hostages said later that security courses, including active-shooter training, helped them through the ordeal, a source stated. The local Catholic community gave support and shelter to the hostages’ families during the ordeal.

Having a terror attack plan is not the same as developing a broader preventive strategy, experts said. While fewer than 6% of incidents for all faith-based organizations monitored were motivated by bias, more than 50% are related to robbery, domestic “spillover” and personal conflict, said Carl Chinn, Faith Based Security Network president. 

Violence perpetrated against a spouse or partner sometimes ends up in church and isn’t addressed, Chinn said. “We have let domestic violence go unchecked in our American houses of worship under the guise that we need to mediate between the attacker and the victim,” he said. Mediation has limits, and churches have to recognize where there is true danger, Chinn said.

On Feb. 4, a woman was fatally shot by her ex-boyfriend at Iglesia Faro de Luz church in Aurora, Colorado. Two of the church’s pastors suffered gunshot wounds in the attack, according to Westword. Days later, the attacker was killed during a standoff with police.

“What happens is, in these relationships, the survivor-victim makes a decision to leave,” McCarty said. “And what these perpetrators often do is they look and say, ‘Where can I find them? Maybe they’ve gone into shelter; can I find them at work, or I find them at church?’”

Domestic abusers may seem more believable than victims, he said, adding that planning for security should include creating an environment where victims feel safe to ask for help. 

Children may be at risk from staff, volunteers or other parishioners, or threats can come from outside, as in the case of a 2-year-old boy kidnapped from the nursery at Riverview Baptist Church in Ripplemead, Virgina, last spring by a woman not connected with the church. She and her boyfriend had earlier cased out two other churches before deciding to commit the crime at the Ripplemead location, according to a local TV station.   

Regarding preparedness for protection of children and young adults within the Church, in 2019 3.7 million children, 2.1 million volunteers, 264,847 employees, 170,611 educators, 33,244 priests, 16,204 deacons and 6,482 candidates for ordination received churchwide safe-environment training, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Vandalism is another crime impacting Catholic churches. The USCCB stated that since May 2020 at least 120 incidents of arson, destruction and vandalism have been perpetrated on Catholic sites across 31 states and the District of Columbia. 

Last month, statues of Our Lady and the three children of Fatima were damaged beyond repair on the grounds of Nativity Catholic Church in Burke, Virginia. Neither the perpetrator nor their motive is known yet, said Amber Roseboom, media relations director for the Arlington Diocese. This was the first time the parish has been affected by vandalism, she said. 

The statues were hidden by trees from exterior cameras, a problem the parish is now rectifying, Roseboom said.  

Vandalism and other crimes can be avoided with a good deterrence strategy, McCarty said. “A lot of times, it’s the path of least resistance that a lot of these folks that do these things are looking for.” 

Crimes on church property are dynamic and sometimes unpredictable, said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, adding that “many different schools of thought can motivate somebody to threaten or follow through on violence, and so knowing that some of those factors are preventable [is key]; but many of them, it’s very difficult to identify ahead of time … offsite, so, therefore, we have to be ready there at the church campus. “ 

Churches can prevent some problems instead of just reacting to them, McCarty said. By committing to prevention, churches can change how they talk, train and build a security program that involves collaboration with law enforcement, emergency responders and other churches, he said.

They also can seek assistance from sources such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which both provides information and facilitates information sharing and guidance.

Grants for physical security enhancements and activities are also available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

It’s not enough to attend occasional security conferences, McCarty said, adding that his company offers an inexpensive self-assessment that can help churches develop a plan. He recommended establishing rings of security going out from the church sanctuary. Security teams and staff can be trained to recognize unusual behaving and situations before they get inside. 

Welcoming unfamiliar newcomers is natural for most houses of worship, but it leaves them vulnerable, McConnell said. “They’re not trying to be a country club, they’re not trying to be members-only for their main gatherings at least, and so that increases the vulnerability,” he said. 

Screening visitors with visitor management systems used in some schools wouldn’t work at church services, but protocols based on weekly traffic patterns are helpful, said McCarty, who also works with public schools.

Securing church borders doesn’t mean building a fence, but, rather, increasing readiness for different situations, Chinn said. 

“The definition of security is the absence of risk,” he said. “That doesn’t exist. If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s we can’t stop them all, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.”

Prayer is an essential part of that ongoing effort, Chinn said. “We can’t do this without God. Prayer one of the most important things.”