Security Concerns For Churches:
The Role Of Greeters and Ushers

Article by Tina Lewis Rowe

Part I

Establishing A Foundation For Church Security

If you are like most greeters and ushers (G/Us), you have little or no background in emergency planning, protection or security activities. You may be a senior-aged member or have a disability or illness, or you may be youthful and inexperienced in dealing with people who are upset. You may be friendly in a quiet way or assertively outgoing. You probably thought your role as a greeter or usher would involve smiling, shaking hands, directing guests, passing the offering plate and helping during services. Fortunately, those will continue to be your primary tasks.

However, greeters, ushers, deacons, assistant ministers, teachers and the pastor, all share responsibility for the safety and security of the congregation. You are not expected to do it all yourself or act as a police officer or security guard but you are expected to continuously observe people and the environment, assess the situation to see if there is danger, and respond appropriately. Your challenge is to fulfill the dual roles of greeter and guardian.

You must be balanced in your approach. You must balance the need to provide a feeling of welcome and openness with being watchful and appropriately wary. Some G/Us are so unconcerned that they are rarely aware of what is happening around them, while others are so concerned that they are tense and on edge all the time.

You must be realistic about your church environment. When people gather for worship, things are rarely as organized as they might be in some other meetings:
People arrive early and late and in groups and alone.
Members and guests may roam around the lobby or wander down halls.
The lobby may be packed with people of all ages.
Your church may not have a greeting area, or it may have a large lobby.
If there is more than one service some people will arrive as others are leaving.
Your post may be in the sanctuary and focused on seating people, or you may be at the front door or in the lobby, busy with greeting, conversing and handing out materials. In either case, you may not be able to contact every guest.

Your task is to keep these realities in mind as you look for even small ways to plan and prepare for an emergency. You may not have a perfect situation from the viewpoint of safety and security, but you can improve the situation you have.

You must be knowledgeable. You need to know what to look for and what to do if you see something of concern. You do not need extensive training to be reasonably effective. Your life experiences and some review and discussion will provide you with most of the knowledge you need.

Other ways to gain knowledge about your security role:
Read all of the written material you receive and review it regularly.
Ask about anything you do not understand or that you disagree with.
Talk to other greeters and ushers, perhaps even those in other churches, to develop plans for a variety of potential emergencies.
Find other resources and share them—but be sure they fit the guidelines established by your church leadership.

You must be willing and able to fulfill your security responsibilities. Your role is too important to treat it as a joke or something you do not intend to do because it is not comfortable for you. On the other hand, you must not react to people in a hostile, humiliating or excessively fearful way. Being balanced, knowledgeable and proactive is your goal.


You serve as a representative of the church and the pastor. You work as part of a church team and must be careful to not go outside guidelines you are given. You should not be more strict or more lenient than the guidelines, or base your actions on your personal likes or dislikes about people or behaviors. Your actions can have an impact on the reputation and welfare of the entire church. When in doubt, get another opinion and assistance, unless the matter is an emergency.

Your primary security tasks are to observe and assess, then get assistance or take appropriate emergency action. The best way for you to fulfill your role is to be aware, alert and ready to get assistance. Going beyond that role can make a situation worse, or get you or others killed or hurt in the case of a violent or threatening person.

You should not carry guns, pepper spray, tasers or other devices without permission. If permission is given the devices must be carried and used within the law.

Get assistance if you have a concern: Ask one—preferably two—G/Us to assist you if you need to talk to someone whose behavior concerns you or if you are checking on a suspicious situation. Do not confront someone on your own unless you have no other choice. This protects you, may prevent a violent action, and provides a witness about anything that occurs. Stay alert to such situations so you can assist others quickly.

Some G/Us have a well-meaning desire to counsel or pray with someone who is upset. However, while you are talking to a person who seems threatening, volatile or irrational, have another G/U call 911. There may be no time to get assistance if your attempts to communicate and counsel fail.

Your security activities should focus on:
1. Observation: Observe people and the environment continuously and purposefully.
2. Assessment: Make a reasonable evaluation of the potential for harm.
3. Action: Get help, then warn and help others. You may be able to do something to prevent violence or keep it from getting worse, but you should first try to get help and warn and help others.


The most recent events involving violence in a church happened in December 2007 in Arvada and Colorado Springs, Colorado. Four young people were killed in two locations by Matthew Murray. If not for the actions of a volunteer security officer, Jeanne Assam, Murray might have killed hundreds of people.

That scenario—someone on a hate-filled rampage—is the one we tend to think of most often when we consider violence or disturbances in a church. However, other violent and criminal situations have occurred that could happen in your church as well.

In Neosho, Missouri, two members and an assistant pastor were killed at the conclusion of a Sunday morning service, by a man who had argued the night before with the two members he shot, both who were relatives of his.
In Arkansas, a man involved in a child-custody dispute came to his wife’s church and shot her while she was getting out of her car in the parking lot.
In Chicago a young church musician was unloading musical equipment when he was shot and killed by a gang member who had intended to shoot the first person he saw.
In Florida a man was brought to church on a Wednesday night by a friend, so he could talk to someone about the fact that he murdered a female neighbor.
In California a church building was damaged, the pastor’s wife was injured, and services were disrupted, by protestors who objected to a scheduled guest speaker.
In North Carolina a church worker who assisted a homeless man was stabbed to death by him in the church kitchen, after which he took her purse and fled.
In Laurel, Maryland, a man entered a church during an evening meeting and sexually assaulted three girls, ages 6-12, who were playing in a basement area, then abducted a 4 year old and sexually assaulted her before releasing her. None of the three girls reported what happened to them until the mother realized the 4 year old was missing, almost an hour later.
In 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed, killing four young girls. Since then other churches have been bombed or vandalized for a variety of reasons or for no discernible reason. In 1998, in Illinois, an Assembly of God church and a Methodist church were bombed, killing one and injuring many others. Two weeks later the prime suspect was killed while making a bomb in his garage.

In many of the cases above, a church building was viewed as more vulnerable than other locations. In some cases the church or a member was the specific target. It is clear that violence can happen, even at your church.

No amount of planning can stop someone from wanting to harm others. Nevertheless, having a plan of prevention and response can make your church a more difficult target and can help reduce the harm if violence occurs. A frequent recommendation for effective planning is to prepare for when something happens rather than if it happens.


Everyone involved in church leadership, including those who are often the frontline of security responses—greeters and ushers—should be involved in considering the risks that are present in a specific church. Do some of these issues fit your church?

Churches in urban areas have a higher likelihood of random violence—although, no church is immune from the danger.
Churches in isolated or rural areas may be viewed as easier targets or defenseless.
?Every church has beliefs that may be controversial to some and these can result in threats, vandalism or violence.
Churches that are near highways and main thoroughfares provide escape routes for criminals.
Churches with schools may be targets for that reason.
If a church is thought to provide food, lodging or financial assistance it can attract people who are disturbed, resentful or desperate, as well as criminals. If a request for assistance is turned down, there may be a criminal or violent reaction.
Churches who have had conflicts with individuals, groups or neighbors may be the subject of revenge or retaliation.
People who have already committed criminal acts may go to a church to seek help, then become violent over the way they feel they were treated.
Churches that attract attention, even for very positive reasons, can also attract the attention of those who want to commit a crime or do a violent act. The attention may be from publicity, special events, television ministries, church programs, sports, signs, crowds, music, well-known pastors, guest speakers, or any of dozens of other reasons.

Human risk factors:
If there is a family conflict, it may continue at church.
If one member of a family is a new convert, a spouse, child or sibling may resent the role of the church in creating unwanted changes at home.
Former church members may have grievances and become violent about them, even years later.
Someone who was once asked to leave may come back to get revenge.
Someone who feels rejected or criticized by even one church member may react violently toward the entire congregation.
Divorces, separations and child custody issues may create violent conflicts.
Someone whose church membership is well known can have a conflict away from church that results in someone following him or her there.
People who are ill or on medication, or who have mental illnesses, can react violently for no logical reason, or because they think they are doing the right thing, getting revenge or simply making themselves famous.
When there is violence in one church, there is the likelihood of copycat violence.

What else might place your church at risk? Talking about that with other G/Us and with your church leadership is the first step in prevention, planning and preparing.

A total comprehensive security program: The security program of your church may involve:
Locks and key systems
Access methods
Visitor screening
Security teams, either professionals or volunteers
Security audits
Other systems and programs

Safety and security plans may include:
Fire safety
Burglary and theft prevention
Computer security
Child care and classroom safety
Vehicle and parking lot safety
Protection for other vulnerable or high-risk issues.

The comprehensive security program of your church may be developed with advice from a security firm, security consultant or the police, or through research by informed church members such as you and other G/Us. Your pastor may appoint a committee to provide oversight for the program and your insights would likely be very helpful.

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