Planning for Emergencies and the Unthinkable

By Donald E. Skinner

Is it possible to imagine that an armed intruder could show up on Sunday morning at one of our congregations, inflamed about our inclusiveness or a particular justice stance we’ve taken in the community, and proceed to do us harm?

It happened in 2008 at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. Then the Newtown shootings made us think about it again. However, given everything else we have to worry about, is this something we really need to spend time considering? Or is the possibility of this kind of mayhem so remote that it will never rise to the top of our list of things to be concerned about?

The Rev. Aaron Payson votes for remote—and he votes for planning for it. That’s because he understands that safeguarding against armed intruders should simply be a part of a much broader safety plan that every congregation should have. He estimates that less than 20 percent of UU congregations have such a plan.

Payson, minister of the UU Church of Worcester, Mass., has an uncommon perspective. As a teenager and young adult he served as an emergency medical technician. As a founding member of the UU Trauma Response Ministry, he’s helped a number of congregations cope with traumatic situations. He also conducts workshops on developing safety plans. Such plans, he says, should include fire safety and natural disaster precautions as well as precautions against armed intruders.

When Payson conducts a workshop on safety issues for leaders of congregations he asks them to think about the threats they are most likely to face. “It most likely is not violence. What congregations are most likely to have to deal with is medical and fire emergencies, break-ins, and natural disasters.”

Payson’s congregation has had a security plan since 2010. At its core are seven people who carry walkie-talkies—the minister, worship associate, religious education director, nursery attendant, two ushers, and a person in the parking lot. “We got them for around $300 total at RadioShack,” said Payson. “They’re unobtrusive, worn on the belt, with an earpiece and lapel mike.”

In addition to their use for security purposes, the devices are useful in letting religious educators know when the service is ending, in locating parents during a service, and for helping with parking and at special events like the fall carnival.

They also make it possible to call a security team together if there is in fact an intruder. “We simply say, ‘There’s a problem in Fellowship Hall,’” said Payson.

The first principle in guarding against intruders is to “know each other,” he says. “Know who the people are in your congregation. Be aware of people who are new and keep an eye out for behaviors that are outside the norm.”

Second, use as few entrances as possible. “Most congregations have from two to seven open doors. There should be someone monitoring every one of them.” There are three areas that need to be monitored closely when a building is in use, he noted. The first is outside the building itself, watching the parking lot either from inside or outside. Second is the foyer. Third is the sanctuary. In all cases, Worcester’s security team is looking for unusual behavior—someone acting nervously, who seems unsure where they’re going, who could be concealing a weapon.

Another tip: If it’s necessary to call 911, do it from a land line instead of a cell phone, if at all possible. Payson notes that 911 calls from a cell phone are routed through the State Police in many areas. Those calls have to be transferred to local dispatchers and that can delay response of emergency personnel. He added that in most communities dispatchers are able to immediately know the location of a land line but not a cell phone.

Language is important too, he said, when talking to emergency personnel. “Don’t downplay a potential threat. Say, ‘There’s a person being disruptive. We don’t know if he has a weapon.’ Using the word ‘weapon’ adds a level of urgency for police.”

Part of any safety training is convincing your security team it’s acceptable to ask someone to leave, he notes. “You have to think about what’s right for the congregation. In a moment’s time an individual can create a situation that can traumatize a congregation. Your inability to deal with that can make or break a congregation. That’s why it’s so important to have an adequate plan and keep to it.”

Look for others in your community to partner with, like the Red Cross, for first aid training, he says. Invite the fire department in for a look around, including showing staff how to use fire extinguishers. Some congregations are reluctant to do this because they know they’re not in compliance with the local fire code, he suggested.

But there’s a difference, he said, in having your local engine company walk through your building and having a full-on fire code inspection. “The personnel in the engine company are more interested in how your building is laid out, what rooms are occupied, etc., rather than specific code violations.”

How big a problem is violence at church? Christianity Today quotes a security expert, Carl Chinn, who says that from 1999 through 2012 there were 638 “deadly force incidents” on church properties in the United States. The largest percent of incidents (22), had robbery as a motive. Around 16 percent stemmed from domestic relationship violence, 15 percent were conflicts with specific other individuals in a church, 9 percent were related to confirmed mental illness, and 7 percent were because of religious bias. Most involved guns or knives. A third of the incidents occurred inside buildings and two-thirds were outside or at offsite church activities.

They range from the shootings at Tennessee Valley to the death of abortion doctor George Tiller while he was ushering in his Lutheran church in Wichita, to the deaths of six Sikh temple members in Oak Creek, Wisc., and two staff members of an Episcopal church in Maryland who were shot by a homeless man who was turned away from a food bank.

There have been two high-visibility shootings in UU congregations in recent years. In the Knoxville attack in 2008 two people were fatally shot and seven others wounded during a youth performance of a musical at Tennessee Valley, by a man who said he hated liberals.

The other tragedy was in 2001 when a mentally unstable man was fatally shot by police in front of the congregation of All Souls UU Church in Brattleboro, Vt. Entering the church at the beginning of a service, the man held a knife to his eye and spoke in a rambling manner to the congregation about his various fears, including his fear of being killed by the FBI. Police arrived and shot him.

The Knoxville congregation established a security plan after doing extensive research. Jayne Raparelli, a former president of the congregation, helped develop the plan, which includes paying a pool of four part-time security sextons who work Sunday mornings and weekday evenings. They are also on duty during special events. Their responsibilities include being aware of everyone who comes into the building and opening and closing the building before and after events. “Security sextons are a welcoming and helpful presence, especially when the sexton is the only staff on site,” she said. “They have made a big difference in the comfort level of a lot of us.” Volunteers are also stationed in the parking lot on Sunday mornings and for many other events.
Tennessee Valley also improved its alarm system, added outside lighting, and cut back shrubbery. Raparelli said the congregation budgets more than $10,000 annually for security, much of it for the sextons. They decided not to have armed security guards though. “That’s just not who we are,” Raparelli said. The church is a gun-free zone, identified by window stickers.

Raparelli said that after the shooting there was a range of opinion among congregants as to how much security to have. “Some think it’s a total waste of time and money. Others welcome it. I look at security like this: You never know what you’ve prevented just by having it.”

Tennessee Valley minister the Rev. Chris Buice observed, “We had to decide how much security made us feel secure. One of the biggest things leading to a sense of security is just having a vigilant group of people. That means a sense of being on the lookout—being observant, but not paranoid. In our case the gunman got as far as he did because what he did was unthinkable. Now there’s an awareness of what can happen and a knowledge of appropriate ways to respond.”

One big deterrent is the element of surprise, he noted. “If people can’t predict every way you might respond, that’s a stronger security position than having every policy you could have.”

The congregation also had to decide whether it would avoid speaking out on justice issues in the community. The church continues to express strong beliefs. “We would say, ‘Be not afraid,’” said Buice. “Living in fear can be extremely detrimental to your spiritual life. Instead, engage in responsible actions. Our social justice work has been a reaffirmation for us.”

The UU Congregation of Atlanta created an emergency preparedness plan in 2009 in response to the Knoxville incident. Associate Minister the Rev. Marti Keller said the plan has been most useful in creating fire drill procedures and in working out responses to natural disasters.

She said that parts of the plan are still being refined, including dealing with individuals who may want to cause harm. “There was a bill in our legislature that would have allowed people to bring guns into places of worship. So it isn’t beyond the ken to imagine there could be that kind of violence. She added, “We absolutely feel better for having an emergency plan, and we’re feeling some urgency to get the last part of it done.”


Contact Tennessee Valley UU Church for a copy of its handbook for security sextons, which deals with everything from responding to threatening people to what to do if fire sprinklers go off.

Church Mutual, which insures many UU congregations, has created white papers on several relevant topics, including, Armed security—is it a wise option for you? and What to do when violence strikes (PDF) (creating a security team).

Other information on emergency planning is available from the UU Trauma Response Ministry.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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