Faith-Based Organizations: Some Practical Steps to Improve Security

Posted on August 17, 2012

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Last week’s active shooter incident at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin serves as yet another reminder of just how vulnerable houses of worship are to acts of violence. In the aftermath of such incidents, much is written about the assailant, the victims and the community. Some use the emotions surrounding these tragedies as political fodder to advocate for one social program or another, while others bemoan the lack of civility that seems to have gripped contemporary society.

All these reactions are understandable, but they aren’t particularly practical. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Writing about the assailant can, under the right circumstances, be educational but it is most often an excuse to titillate the reader by glorifying evil.
  • Discussions about the victims, the community and society can serve to help us mentally process the incident, but the discussions themselves fail to provide preventative value.
  • Using tragedy as a vehicle to advocate for social change most often results in overly simple and emotional solutions to complex social problems.

While the aforementioned reactions to tragedy will doubtlessly continue, there are some practical steps that can be taken to prevent and/or mitigate such incidents at faith-based organizations. It is important to note that no security program, no matter how well-funded, managed and supported will ever be 100% effective. Nonetheless, the acceptance of this reality is not an excuse for inaction.

Here are a few key steps that faith-based organizations can take to improve their security posture:

Adopt a Security Mindset: It is common to say that a formal risk assessment is the cornerstone upon which all security programs are based. I respectfully disagree. The cornerstone of a successful security program is adoption of a proper mindset by an organization’s leadership. There are two common mistakes people make when thinking about security:

  • Mistake #1 is to assume that every conceivable incident is going to happen today, on your watch and everyone is going to blame you. Such mindsets lead to overbearing security personnel who eventually lose credibility with the organization’s leadership.
  • Mistake #2 is to assume that it can’t happen here. In faith-based communities mistake #2 often takes the form of the following statement: “We’re safe because we’re doing God’s work.”

A proper security mindset accepts the fact that bad things happen to someone, somewhere, every day and seeks to implement reasonable steps to prepare for those contingencies.

Conduct a Formal Risk Assessment: Almost everyone I’ve ever met in the security field agrees that a formal risk assessment should be conducted before implementing countermeasures. There are readily available books, guidelines and position papers on multiple risk-assessment methodologies. The problem for many organizations is that leadership often makes long-term security decisions out of fear or while in crisis mode. This is particularly true in faith-based communities where mindset, budgetary constraints and lack of experience combine to stifle such systematic endeavors.

Implement Countermeasures Over Time: Once a formal risk assessment is completed, it is time to implement countermeasures. The odds are that budgetary constraints will prevent you from doing everything at once and that’s okay. By starting with your top 5 or 10 issues and making gradual improvements, your organization’s security posture will be enhanced and your congregation will be better protected.

Don’t Forget to Train Your People: High levels of situational awareness go a long way to the prevention of violence. While every organization has somewhat different needs, members of the congregation should at least be trained to recognize pre-operational surveillance and to report any activity that they deem unusual. An aware congregation is not only a great early warning system it is also a force multiplier. A security program should reflect the values of the organization it serves. By providing a balanced and systematic approach to protection we can help improve the security at houses of worship while still maintaining a welcoming and worshipful environment.

Article ByScott A. Watson, CPP, CFE is a career security professional, author, teacher, speaker and consultant specializing in the areas of organizational security, crisis management and education. He is active in Christian ministries and currently serves as the Chairman of the ASIS Houses of Worship Security Committee.

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