You’re with a group of people in a room with the door closed. All of you are on your knees, head down, eyes closed, fingers interlocked. You are:
a) Hostages b) Practicing Yoga c) Praying d) Vulnerable
You may be any one of the first three. But for our purposes, you can all circle “d.”
Attacks on places of worship are, like those on college campuses, among the most horrific of crimes. Though rare, the vulnerability of the target multiplies the damage that can be done.
Today, VX goes to worship. For this exercise, the word “church” will be synonomous with synagogue, mosque, temple or any other noun describing a place of worship. The simple fact is that whosoever congregates to worship is exposed to unique threats—threats that do not care which god(s) you worship.
“Threats? What threats?” you ask. Just what is your VX when you go to church?
Genesis: From whence do these threats originate? Probably not from where you think.
Chuck Chadwick, founder and president of the National Organization for Church Security and Safety Management (NOCSSM), has three decades of private security experience, more than a decade of it in church security. He spoke to us from his Texas office: “Churches are the hospitals for the soul,” Chadwick told us. “We advertise for sick people to come to church: ‘Are you hurting? Come to church.’”
“Churches are the hospitals for the soul,” Chadwick told us. “We advertise for sick people to come to church: ‘Are you hurting? Come to church.’ They attract the mentally ill and those in a crisis state. ‘You need to help me! I need some money!’ They may take their feelings out on the church: ‘God didn’t help me!’” When viewed from this perspective, it’s a wonder that violence in church isn’t rampant.
Pastors who achieve the status of actors or rock stars can attract unwanted attention. Chadwick calls it a continuum of celebrity: “It used to be that you had a church, and then you’d start a tape ministry, then a CD ministry, and then the Internet came along, and then you’re doing podcasts and streaming video, and then you’re on broadcast TV. As your audience grows, you’re exposed to more crazy people.”
Celebrity stalkers show up at your church, saying they have a present or a business opportunity for the pastor. “The brightest lights attract the most bugs,” says Chadwick.
What about the terror attacks that dominate the media?
“Our high-value targets in the Middle East are often Imams. Jihadists are not stupid; they catch onto the disruption they can create in our society by assassinating our pastors,” cautioned Chadwick. However, terror is not the most persistent threat in a sanctuary. “Domestic problems,” Chadwick points out, are the most common. “He or she got a divorce or separated; there may be a boyfriend or a girlfriend involved. You may have moved, and you may have a restraining order, but they sure know where you go to church.”
Numbers: In VX, we are blessed with 100 basis points free of charge. Then we add (or subtract) points for increased (or decreased) vulnerability. (If you don’t like our math, well … we love you anyway, brother.) Our VX is impacted by our mindset and our environment, and the news isn’t good on either front.
At worship, our mindset can be our enemy. We put on our Sunday-best selves: We’re open, friendly and welcoming. We’re seeking enlightenment and forgiveness. We almost feel compelled to make ourselves more vulnerable. Add 25 points.
We’re distracted, too: Packing the kids off to youth ministry, fishing for folding money for the offering, trying to find Phillipians, Chapter 4 (Is that Old or New Testament? Jordan, leave your sister alone!). Add 25 more points.
As for our environment, places of worship are rarely designed to be fortresses; higher considerations trump security. Therefore, you’re likely seated in a pew; there are five people between you and the nearest aisle (+25 pts). Your back is to the main entrance (+25 pts). Your family is seated with you, complicating escape plans (+25 pts) in a sanctuary filled with children (+25). There are few exits, and none are close (+25).
You’re piling up points from the time you get out of the minivan. You even the odds if your church employs off-duty police or trained private security (-100 pts). However, many churches rely solely on armed parishioners, untrained in less-lethal methods of confrontation—often in defiance of state law requiring training and certification for church security. Armed citizens are a deterrent (-50), but likely not as effective as a trained security team. In Jeff Cooper’s color codes parlance, no one wears orange to church; we’re all dressed in white.
Is trouble more likely to visit a megachurch, or a small church? Chadwick’s research says the majority of churches have only 50-100 members. The majority of violent attacks occur in these churches, based solely on their numbers. While attacks on megachurches dominate headlines, “not everyone is a New Life Church,” he reminds us.
Add one point for every five church members under 200.
Acts: So, what can you do to mitigate these risks? In the beginning, Chadwick advises a simple strategy he refers to as DLR.
“Don’t Look Right,” is his straightforward strategy for threat recognition, he explains. “Look for things that seem out of place. Send trained gatekeepers to confront abnormality with aggressive friendliness: ‘Hey, how you doin’? I haven’t seen you here before. Have you been coming here long?’” Like cops who start conversations at traffic stops, be more interested in his behavior than his answers: Is he drunk? Is he disoriented?
If the situation escalates, “You gotta have somebody who is intervention-capable, who is trained in the laying on of hands—in an unhealing way,” says Chadwick.
Revelations: The qualities that draw us to our beloved places of worship make those sanctuaries magnets for the maladjusted.
“We’re soft targets,” says Chadwick. “You need to have what is called in scripture ‘Gatekeepers’: people who are willing and able and trained to respond to violence. When you bring it to us, we’re going to bring it right back to you.” In lay terms, gatekeepers are called sheepdogs.
Does Chadwick find he still has to convince churches that self-defense is congruent with their faith?
“I used to,” he says. “But a person only has so much energy. Now, our boat is full training the people who have already come to the conclusion that they need to do something.”