Securing Houses of Worship

By Carlton Purvis, Published Feb 25, 2014, 12:00am EST

What are the most common types of crimes at houses of worship? How to you convince a congregation that you need to add video surveillance or a security system?

Jim McGuffey is a security consultant with 40 years of experience in security management. Now he runs the site where he offers free on-site assessments for HOWs. We recently talked with him about house of worship security and what it takes secure sacred places.

Most Common Threats to Churches

The most common threats he sees are vandalism, embezzlement, theft and assaults, he says. He says some of the main things that impact a churches vulnerability are if it is in a high crime area and what kind of safety and security precautions they have in place already.

"People mostly hear about shootings or assaults that occur within churches but the loss events that occur most often are vandalism and burglaries. Unfortunately too many church leaders only become interested in security following a shooting or serious assault. This is when I receive the most calls for information or assistance," he said. 

These threats are specific to churches in the United States where McGuffey's experience lies. Churches abroad, especially in areas experiencing religious-connected violence, are likely to face more life-threatening issues.

Overcoming Congregation Objections

One of the bigger hurdles when implementing security at a church is making it acceptable to the congregation. People want to feel secure, but at the same time, they don't want to feel scrutinized and maintain a level of privacy in such an intimate setting. Most churches, McGuffey says, have concerns about implementing new technology as a part of their security plans (he also noted that most churches don't even have alarm systems).

"Many churches in our country provide little or no physical security for parishioners. I believe that this lack of security is due to concern that a security program will create unnecessary alarm for parishioners," he said.

Additionally, they may not have the staff to maintain the equipment.

"These best approach to overcoming objections is to make the security program as seamless and transparent as possible. A good marketing program is also crucial prior to implementing any security program. Make sure that parishioners are aware of the benefits from a security program, such as equipment and training for medical emergencies," he said. "And most important is to get all of the right people involved in the VAM process to ensure that the plan that is developed is their plan and not that of the security professional." 

McGuffey says he will usually try and have the church identify an ad hoc safety group made up of the pastor and church leaders, the youth leaders, the finance people, any IT people and maintenance personnel. They all become a part of the assessment and are able to provide input into what their needs/concerns are.

"When we're done, it's their program. If you have them as a part of the program from the very beginning that helps sell it to the congregation and decide the best approach so a parishioner doesn't just show up one days and see 14 cameras around the church," he said.

Security For Churches Can Be Cost Prohibitive

Knowing that most churches don’t have security budgets or surplus funds to divert toward security, McGuffey focuses on cost effective countermeasures -- small, immediate changes that have big impacts. For example, only using entrances and exits as needed, never allowing staff or volunteers to work alone, proper lighting and controlling sensitive information. His other low-cost tips, many of which can be implemented immediately, can be found on his site

Despite his focus on low cost, he is also a proponent for using video analytics in churches (with budgets that will allow it). He regularly posts articles for churches on topics from security design strategies, using CCTV to protect children at church, to preventing fraud and embezzlement. In these articles he says analytics can be useful for churches to track when people left or enter areas, or to give motion or in the case of lack of motion alerts in a child care area.

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"For example, if a vehicle parks for more than five minutes outside a church office between the hours of 2:00 AM and 4:00 AM, a signal could be sent to the mobile phone of a designated person. Another example, could occur in the infant care area when a signal is sent when a restricted door or window is opened," he said.

Difference in Securing Houses of Worship?

The basic concept used to protect a church facility is the same as any other facility.

"It’s all about protecting assets using people, technology and policies and procedures. The higher risk facilities simply require additional and more enhanced technology, policies and procedures and people require additional training," he said.

McGuffey noted that the important part of the process that is the most often overlooked in churches, the corporate world and government agencies is the maintenance phase. This phase addresses the management of the established process.

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