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Pray for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Pray for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

No one likes to dwell on worst-case scenarios, especially as they apply to your house of worship. You must plan for the worst, though, whether that involves burglary, emergency evacuation, fire and arson, child abduction, internal theft, a violent incident, or a situation where your church may serve as an emergency shelter. Turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, and reminders of the worst that can happen abound.

These aren’t pleasant issues to ponder—and you hope that your congregation never has to face them—but your church’s reputation and perhaps its very survival rides on preparedness and having the right systems, procedures and people in place.

In the first six months of this year, churches reported 17 violent crimes, including assaults of priests in Texas and Florida, and six homicides. According to the Christian Security Network’s report, “Crimes against Christian Organizations in the United States,” which tracks the first half of 2009, police, faulty weapons and other factors prevented gunmen in five of those situations from escalating the violence and creating even greater tragedy. Christian Security Network is an organization dedicated to the advancement of security, safety, and emergency planning for Christian churches.

Additionally, churches lost more than $6.3 million in property due to burglary, theft, robbery, arson and vandalism, with burglary accounting for 64% of crimes against churches and arson and theft 13% and 7%, respectively. Losses from internal theft in the first six months of 2009 totaled more than $2.3 million, including the case of a church volunteer in Knoxville, Tenn., who stole from fellow worshippers for years.

Awareness and planning are keystones to church security, says Jeff Hawkins, executive director of Cincinnati, Ohio-based Christian Security Network. Church security is an issue as old as King Solomon’s Temple, if not older, and, like everything else your church does and represents, it creates discipleship and ministry opportunities—not to mention a safe environment for worship—when it’s done right. Secondarily, proper security planning and implementation leads to lower insurance rates.

“The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is thinking that it can’t happen here—no matter what it is,” Hawkins says. “Churches really have to start right away. Every day they put it off, they’re that much more at risk.”

Of course, everything starts out with an assessment of what you have and what you need to protect, from property and items like musical instruments, offering funds and audio-visual equipment to our most precious assets, members and especially children. If your church can’t afford to bring in security consultants on its own, pooling resources with other churches is always an option that can at least initiate the process and a comprehensive security plan.

With church property and buildings, security should begin at the design phase if possible and should involve systems—burglar and fire alarms, locks and surveillance, nursery check-in and out, online server backup—that are scalable and easy to update. In evaluating consultants and systems, be wary of those who make it sound more complicated than it is, Hawkins says, who also points out that some of the basics like lighting, locks and landscaping can be pretty simple.

All-Hazards How-To

Securing property and people is only part of the plan, though. An element of any security plan should involve all-hazards preparedness, including business continuity, says William Moorhead, a partner at Winston Salem, N.C.-based All Clear Emergency Management Group LLC, a planning and preparedness company that focuses on emergency management systems.

“Security is evolving into all-hazards preparedness,” Moorhead says. “Any size church can take a step back and do this. Everybody needs to know the plan and how it works.”

Having an all-hazards plan doesn’t mean much if it just sits on a shelf, Moorhead says, and exercising the plan is key and can be as simple as a table-top exercise—those responsible for executing the plan can meet to discuss various scenarios and steps—or a full bore simulation can occur, involving emergency responders, public health and law enforcement. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) is one tool to evaluate your efforts. [Editor’s note: For HSEEP information and resources, see http://tinyurl.com/2ucgsr.]

For those not involved in the planning and execution of the security and all-hazards plan, a simulation demonstrates what an incident might look like, how to respond and, ultimately, provides evaluation of the strategy and ability to implement it. Such initiatives also help churches organize all the information that needs to be conveyed to first responders in an emergency situation.

All-hazards preparedness also creates ministry opportunities to reach law enforcement, EMTs, municipal and state emergency preparedness teams, public health officials and the community at large. Moorhead points to a Greenville, S.C., church that had prepared and practiced its all-hazards plan, and was able to meet the challenges of serving as a community shelter when an ice storm hit the area right before Christmas. The church’s plan also included providing security for a sheltering event.

“Recognize preparedness as an investment,” Moorhead says. “If you invest a little bit in preparedness, the expenditure for the planning outweighs any emotional or financial cost down the road. A little bit of preparedness goes a long way.”

Pieces of the Security Puzzle

Christian Security Network’s Hawkins has some pretty simple advice when it comes to locks, alarms and surveillance—use them.

Keys and locks pose a number of problems, though: who has the keys and what do you do if someone loses a master key? Corvallis, Ore.-based Videx Inc. and its provide one solution.

CyberLock is an electronic, battery-powered key that communicates with a lock cylinder that’s installed within existing door hardware. CyberLock tracks who has access, why and when, with each key programmed to limit access and privileges to specific jobs and responsibilities and help churches keep track of physical assets. If a key is lost, it can quickly be deactivated, and churches won’t have to worry about re-keying an entire church. In a power failure, CyberLock is fully functional, as well. If someone tries to violate the lock, it goes into failsafe mode. The system costs approximately $300 per door, perhaps cheaper if your church facilities or maintenance pros know how to change out locks. CyberLock, too, can drive down insurance premiums, reports Kathleen Childs, media communications representative with Videx.

“They’re extremely secure,” Childs says “Now they can keep people out of areas they do not belong in and give access to people who do belong at that given time. You have accountability now, and it makes a difference how people react when they’re held accountable.”

Sometimes, security is as much about whom you’re keeping in, especially when it comes to children’s ministries.

Check-in systems for nurseries and classrooms are built into Church Community Builder’s church management software and Shelby Systems’ Arena software. If you already have the web-based software, all you need is a label printer.

First Baptist Church, Oviedo, Fla., uses a Shelby module for check-in for the 275-300 children attending the church’s Friendship Island-themed children’s ministry and its 22 classrooms each Sunday. The church uses four computer stations built into the themed area to check in member families, who are equipped with a card that contains parents’ and children’s names and other pertinent information. FBC Oviedo has a separate line for visitors so they can take a little extra time to explain the system and how it works, and the church has another line for those who have forgotten their family’s card. The system also tracks background checks and other elements and certifications required to work with children.

“[Our secure check in is] definitely part of the environment and wraps into it,” says Debbie Valle, director of FBC Oviedo’s children’s ministry. “[All the parents] see the value in it and feel it’s worth their time to ensure that their children are safe. It not only makes our parents feel so much more confident, but it’s huge for visitors.”

While properly administered check-in systems can be integral to children’s security, they also create prospects if the information is integrated into a church’s database. A visiting family will have to provide, at the very least, a name, phone number and e-mail when checking children into a children’s ministry using systems like Arena or Community Church Builder, and that information will go straight to the church database.

“One of the advantages of integrated check-in is that it creates discipleship opportunities,” says Steve Caton, vice president of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Church Community Builder. “Having everything tied together makes that happen seamlessly. The point is to begin the process of getting people involved in the church.”

Creating a safe environment for children and families to worship is the first prerogative of church security, but financial security may be a close second. Physical security of the cash, checks, etc., is just a piece of a church’s overall security plan, but security for online giving is increasingly important as well. Online giving creates another avenue for church financial health, but there are risks, fraud, hacking and identity theft that must be safeguarded against. Fortunately, a few easy steps—or clicks of a mouse—can diminish that risk. First, check to see if your online giving partner complies with Payment Card Industry (PCI) data security standards. Second, check VISA and MasterCard’s websites to see if the provider is compliant with the card issuers’ Cardholder Information Security Program (CISP); other cards such as American Express and Discover generally defer to VISA and MasterCard’s CISP. If a vendor is not compliant with both PCI and CISP, you really have to ask why, says Tim Whitehorn, president and CEO of Memphis, Tenn.-based ServiceU, a firm that provides online giving, ticketing and scheduling software and is both PCI- and CISP-compliant.

“As it relates to security, many churches are oblivious to the security requirements and rules,” Whitehorn says. “It’s important and something every church needs to be familiar with if they’re taking online payments. [And] in this economy, we’re seeing more interest than ever in online payments with churches.”

In all areas—access control, children’s ministry check-in, community needs relating to weather and unforeseen events, and online giving—churches of today must be prepared. The safety of church staff, members and visitors, and the community at large may well depend upon it.

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