Looking the Part
A high-profile security team acts as a deterrent to violence at Valley Family Church, a Kalamazoo, Michigan church that averages around 2,000 to 2,500 in total weekend attendance.
The church has always had ushers provide some level of security for the congregation in the event of an emergency or a disturbance, according to Aaron Johnson, executive pastor of operations. In 2007, it formally established a volunteer security team.
"We have always had a plan in place in case of emergencies such as severe weather, evacuations, etc.," says Johnson. "Establishing a security team has enabled us to have a focused group of individuals who recognize that their primary role is to provide safety and security for those who attend."
Valley Family's focus is on deterrence, accomplished in part by making members of this team as highly visible as possible.
The way they do this has changed over time. "In the past, they wore uniforms that were basically a black polo shirt with our church’s logo on it, with the word security' on the sleeve," Johnson explains. "However, we recently we changed that to asking them to dress very sharply,' meaning in a sport coat or suit jacket."
The new mode of dress enables security team members to better stand out in what Johnson describes as "a very casual church." More importantly, "We changed so that those in attendance would take the team more seriously we felt that someone in a polo may come across more as just being a guy wearing a shirt that says security' on it," says Johnson. In addition, he notes, all members of the team are "miked up" with earbuds and microphones.
In addition to providing a major deterrent to someone with intent to cause harm within the church, Valley Family's security team is trained to provide instructions and direction to other key leaders and attendees in the event of emergencies such as severe weather and fire, according to Johnson.
Also, "the team provides our attendees with peace of mind in knowing that while they attend church to worship the Lord, they and their family are being watched over, and that the church values the importance of making sure everyone both feels - and is - safe."
In formulating the Valley Family Church security plan, church staff worked with several long-term members of its congregation who were/are law enforcement and/or emergency response professionals, according to Johnson.
"We incorporated the various staff and ministry leaders of all of our ministry environments," he says, "which helped us make sure that every area’s unique environment and internal procedures and protocols did not conflict with the procedures developed for emergency responses."
Aware and Alert
On July 27, 2008, an individual with a hatred of liberals and Democrats entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville during a children’s performance of the musical “Annie.”
He was carrying a guitar case. Inside was a 12-guage semiautomatic shotgun with a sawed off barrel. He pulled the gun out of the case and opened fire, killing two and wounding seven others. The shooting stopped when he was tackled and restrained by church members and a visitor. Police and ambulance responders arrived shortly thereafter.
Unitarian congregations ultimately make their own decisions about how to approach security, notes Annette Marquis, now LGBTQ and Multicultural Program director for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and, at the time of the shooting, a UUA district executive for the area in which the church is located.
While there are no official policies regarding armed security at Unitarian congregations, "If there has been a specific threat, and the congregation has been feeling some concern, that is certainly an option for them," says Marquis.
At Tennessee Valley, "The challenge there was that the man arrived with a guitar case, which nobody thought unusual, given that music is a very common part of the Tennessee Valley culture," says Marquis.
In avoiding similar occurrences in the future, Marquis explains, "One of the best defenses we have is people particularly those that have responsibilities, such as ushers and welcomers that are trained to be aware and alert and not to accept anything at face value."
"Training is typically done informally at the congregational level," she notes. "Each congregation needs to think about their culture, and how they can be more attentive about people they don't know coming in, without appearing to over-scrutinize them," says Marquis, adding "Obviously, they want to be welcoming but they also have to be aware that, in some instances, all may not be what it seems."