When meeting people who are new to the church, a common question that comes up is "Is this a safe place for my family and my children?" says the Rev. Duane Anders, lead pastor of Cathedral of the Rockies, a United Methodist church in Boise, Idaho. Cathedral of the Rockies hosts a Safe Church Summit to help leaders address issues of safety.
We as members of United Methodist congregations can also do things to help ourselves, our families, and others feel more secure at church.
When entering a space as familiar as your church, it can be easy to let down your guard, but one of the best things you can do is remain alert. Being aware of the people and situations around you not only helps you feel safer, it helps serve your congregation.
"We need to help our people to become highly aware," says the Rev. Ralph Lawrence, pastor of Caldwell (Idaho) United Methodist Church. "We need to have a heightened awareness of who is in our community and who is walking through the doors of our church," he continues.
"Most people see odd and out of place things in hindsight," Joe Prin, Facilities Manager for the Cathedral of the Rockies and coordinator of the Church Safety Summit. "We want them to see it from the beginning."
Introduce yourself to those you haven't met before. Keep an eye out for unattended children who have escaped the education wing. Approach the person who appears agitated and offer a shoulder on which he or she can lean. These practices are things every church member should do as a means of connecting with visitors, but it also helps us remain aware of others in the sanctuary with us.
Be careful not to treat newcomers as outsiders, however. We want our churches to be welcoming communities. Visitors need to feel the extravagant hospitality your congregation offers.
Report suspicious behavior
If you see something odd or out of place, report it. Every United Methodist congregation is encouraged to have a safety plan that includes best practices during an emergency, and a process of reporting potentially harmful behavior including sexual misconduct and abuse. Know to whom you should report and do so. Your report may prevent future harm.
Your church's safety plan will also include other important information, such as designated location where you will be able pick up your children in an emergency and a safe place to gather during a storm. Knowing the plan ahead of time will make it easier to follow instructions from leaders and assist others during an emergency.
Ask your pastor or other church leaders about your congregation's safety plan.
AEDs and CPR
Being prepared for a medical emergency is important.
"From the stats I've been presented," Prin teaches, "you have a 30-1 greater chance to have a serious medical emergency in a church than an act of violence."
Many United Methodist churches have AEDs (automated external defibrillators) installed, that can save a life during a heart attack. Know where the AED is and attend training to learn how it works. While the device talks anyone through its usage, it is good to familiarize yourself with the machine before you need it.
CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) can also be life-saving. Take a class in CPR and basic first aid so that you are prepared. Be sure to keep your training and certification current as best practices are frequently updated.
Also, know the medical professionals in your congregation, and don't hesitate to call 911 or other emergency services. When someone is in a medical emergency, a quick response is important. The earlier one receives treatment, the more likely they are to recover fully from the crisis.
Note the exits
When something catastrophic happens in a congregation, the best defense is often to get out as quickly as possible. Before the service starts, look for exits. There may be doors in your worship space you have never used that are available in the case of an emergency. Look around and take note.
Take another moment to think about those around you. You may be able to assist less ambulatory members of your congregation during an emergency.
Every congregation needs members who are trained to help keep the congregation safe, even as they perform other ministry responsibilities at church.
"We're going to have ushers that are more than a smiling face and a handshake," Prin says of the training his congregation provides for their leaders. "They're going to be observant. They're going to be vigilant. They're going see when something doesn't look right. They're going to see if somebody needs ministry."
Many United Methodist churches offer training in conjunction with local law enforcement, emergency medical professionals, and others that will help volunteers know what to look for, and what to do when they see something suspicious. Those who serve as ushers, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, serve as parking lot attendants, and just about everyone else in the church should take advantage of these opportunities.
Feeling safe in church comes when we are willing to think through that which we would rather take for granted. While we may not want to think this way, it is important for all of us to be prepared and actively participate in the safety of our congregation and ourselves.
Learn more about ways to respond to violence.
This story was published on November 14, 2017.