What are the Major Safety and Security Threats Faced by Religious Congregations?

I concluded my post on Jeff Kowell’s view of church security as ministry by highlighting his point that very little church security involves any physical intervention at all, armed or unarmed. And, yet, church security is often treated just as a variant of armed security in general, especially as concerns “active shooter interdiction.”

So, in addition to wondering how religious congregations’ unique missions affect their approaches to security, I find myself wondering what the relationship is between what actually threatens congregations and what they perceive to be threatening (and hence plan for).

Fortunately, a 2018 publication by sociologist Christopher Scheitle sheds some light on this issue: Religious Congregations’ Experiences with, Fears of, and Preparations for Crime: Results from a National Survey.

The survey of over 1,300 congregations in the US finds that in 2014, 39% of congregations experienced some type of property or violent crime, from vandalism to homicide.

Overall, the most commonly (self-)reported crime is vandalism on the outside of the building – 18.75% of congregations report this. The second most commonly reported crime is theft on the inside of the building – 16.41% of congregations repot this.

The least common crimes on the list are homicide (0.44% of congregations) and arson/intentional fire (0.58%). (Full details appear in Table 3 of the article, inserted below.)

Mass homicides in religious congregations are even more rare. Still, at the National Organization of Church Safety and Security Management (NOCSSM) national conference we attended in August 2018, repeated reference was made in the public sessions to the mass shootings at New Life Church in Colorado Springs (2007) and Wedgewood Baptist Church in Forth Worth (1999), and in my private conversation to First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs (2017). (Interesting to note that the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was mentioned less frequently, though perhaps this was due to its geographic rather than its racial distance.)

At the NOCSSM national conference, the level of concern about crimes against churches was in inverse proportion to their frequency, both in the formal presentations and among the attendees with whom I spoke. Although not completely ignored, issues of property crime were treated rather briefly, while issues of violent crime were treated extensively.

To be fair, many recognize that mass shootings in churches are “Black Swan” events (to borrow from Nassim Tabel – more on this later, I’m reading the book now). One NOCSSM national conference presenter, Sean Lawler, even used the term Black Swan to describe active shooters in churches, and insisted that they key is to prepare for such an event (even though it is an outlier) without getting “tied up in it.” He gave the example of the Boston Marathon bombing. “Is it likely? No. But why not mitigate it anyway?”

This is a classic “low odds, high stakes” risk assessment that is common in defensive gun culture in general.

Additionally, but not surprisingly, crimes are not evenly distributed across all congregations in the United States. Synagogues are more likely than the average congregation to experience vandalism outside (23.94% compared to 18.74% overall). Mosques are much more likely than average to experience threats by email, phone, or mail (18.75% compared to 5.88% overall). And black Protestant churches are more likely to experience assaults (4.47% compared to 1.82% overall) and homicides (1.12% compared to 0.44% overall).

Which is interesting because the vast majority of those at the NOCSSM conference were from predominantly white Protestant churches. Who is providing security training to the synagogues, mosques, and black Protestant churches which are more likely to be victimized?

8 comments

  1. I think the details would show that many of the assaults and homicides at black Protestant churches are not actually “church related” at all, but are simply extensions of the same higher percentage of interpersonal violence within the small subculture of violent people in their communities, who will act upon each other wherever and whenever they find themselves in proximity, or can know when the other party is likely to be somewhere. In that regard a church is a no different place to continue an ongoing conflict than any other public space for any other occasion. Whether for a funeral or celebration (birthday, graduation, concert, or even a damn barbeque), it seems the members of the subculture of violence have zero respect for their own communities in any way.

    Motive matters I think, insofar as it can be determined, to determine the nature of the threat, which the conference speakers seem to have reflected. There are crimes _directed_ at churches, which are a different kind of threat than “normal” crimes, which simply happen to _occur_ at churches. The latter are more or less indistinguishable, except in psychological impact probably, from the same crime anywhere large number of people gather.

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  2. Black churches have been historically subjected to violence,due to race or targets off opportunity,by thieves or burglars.The introduction off any form of security measures also has been derided and not encouraged.by traditional congregations.I currently advise and assist various churches with implementing security and safety ministries.This includes,training with fully stocked trauma kits,active shooter drills and prep,and the formation of security teams.Thankfully,attitudes have shifted in regards to being our true first responders.

    Liked by 1 person

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