What's Your Church's Plan for an Active Shooter?
Four things church leaders must consider when preparing a shooter response plan.

With church shootings on the rise (last year there were 135 incidents of shootings at places of worship in the U.S.), it's more important than ever to know how to respond to the threat. Dr. Jamie Aten, Psychology Professor at Wheaton College and co-founder of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, gives churches a few tips on how to best prepare for, and prevent, a church shooting.

1. Train your greeters.

First of all, one of the things you might want to think about is disclosing at different levels. Primary staff should know every detail of your shooter response plan. With laypeople, greeters are especially important.

As a matter of fact, greeters should be some of the very first people you train. During our disaster leadership workshop, we had a police chief come in and do training on active shooters. He said the first deterrent to preventing an active shooter is to train your greeters to be on the lookout for anyone that might seem suspicious.

That doesn't mean they're trained to tackle somebody they think is suspicious. But the police chief said that many times just asking, "Can I help you? Can I get you help? Is there something I can do for you?" can offset what could snowball into a more dangerous situation.

The way you would equip your greeters will probably be very different from how you would equip your congregation, which is also different from how you would train your staff. It's about having key people in the know, and the rest of your congregation informed enough to follow direction.

2. Test your plan.

Churches need to make sure they recognize that "Having a plan" doesn't necessarily mean that you're prepared. Until you actually practice the plan–until you partner with others to test it–your plan is just a piece of paper.

I was consulting recently with a church who wanted to develop an active shooter plan. I read through their plan, and I encouraged them to choose a day and practice that plan. Run it out. And so they did–they followed their plan precisely, which was to get into a location that was isolated; a room that had no windows.

They followed their plan exactly like what they were supposed to do, but then the pastor who was coming around as the faux gunman came and jiggled on the door, and it opened. They'd picked a room that met all the criteria of a safe room, but nobody realized that that room had no locks on the doors.

A plan, until you put it into practice, is just a piece of paper.

Practicing the plan allowed them time to realize that there was obviously a huge hole in what they'd written out. They needed to make new choices and test out that new plan, and then make the safest room known to the congregation. If they thought, This room is the safest, without realizing it had no locks, in the case of a real emergency, others might think the same thing. Your attendees need to know where to hide, and where not to hide.

3. Use the resources at hand.

Contact your local police chief, fire department, or even the emergency management, for advice. Many of those groups will actually come to your church and help you walk through developing a plan.

4. Make the plan known.

Clearly communicate your plan to others, and make sure that they're paying attention. I was having lunch last week with a friend who worked at a church, and he introduced me to his pastor, who happened to be sitting by us at the restaurant. We started talking, and he said to me, "I've been wanting to contact you because I've been at this church now for five years, and we just had our annual staff meeting and somebody talked about our church's shooter response plan."

And my other friend said, "Wait a minute. This is the first time I've ever heard about this church plan."

"Oh no," replied the pastor. "We cover it every year in our staff meeting."

What they realized was about half of the members had no recollection that this ever even gets talked about in a church. If your core staff doesn't even know about a plan, it's likely the rest of your congregation doesn't know how to respond either. Make plans, and then make sure they're available to others. Doing so just might save lives.

P.S. Did you miss last week's Guns at Church webinar? Download the handout and watch the recording for FREE.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is Founder and Co-Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The Humanitarian Disaster Institute is the first faith-based academic disaster research center in the country. Dr. Aten's research on the psychology of religion and disasters was recently recognized with an award from the American Psychological Association.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."


Displaying 1–5 of 5 comments

Tab Wells

December 12, 2013  10:52pm

To ChurchSecurity: A locked door is an impediment to speedy killing. Active shooters tend to go to areas with the largest number of unprotected people and do as much damage as possible in the shortest span of time possible. Because so many people have cell phones, shooters seem to know their time is limited and will go for the easiest targets before law enforcement arrives. A locked door means time to attempt to gain entry. Shooting locks works great in the movies, but in real life, it is very difficult to shoot a lock and get more than a lock that doesn't work with its key. Hope that helps clarify why locked rooms are important.

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Richard S Sistrunk

October 01, 2013  1:03pm

I'm curious about how a locked door to an inner room will prevent a person armed with a firearm from doing harm? This lockable door seems to be a critical criteria for safety.

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August 27, 2013  11:15am

A great article and much needed info for a pastor and church to be prepared to be the Good Shepherd that He calls them to be in order to provide for and protect His flock that He guides and leads to them. Too often today the church is not prepared to deter, detect, defend and respond to an emergency, and they are all at risk for many types of an emergency, from weather related, fires, disruptions of services, medical, loss or missing children, and the ever present danger of a shooter. Every church needs to review their risk with a Risk Analysis Audit or a Loss Prevention Survey, to help them develop a Plan, create Teams to implement and carry out their Plan, and have the equipment, training and practices that are necessary for them to be truly Prepared and ready to provide for the flock that He has given.

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David J Duecker

August 25, 2013  10:09am

Excellent article; for the comment regarding the folks in church "carrying", a couple points. First of all they are in church and secondly you know they are carrying. This would suggest they are believers at some level and probably law abiding. The very fact that you are aware of this and not alarmed also suggests that you probably vouch for their respective hearts and character. Licensed carriers know better than most the consequences of un-holstering a weapon. If there is no sign at the door of the church telling criminals that firearms are not allowed you stand a higher probability that they're thinking twice about entering for criminal activity. The article above explains how you would supplement your service with adequate awareness and training. Let God do the rest...

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Pete Smith

August 22, 2013  9:30am

we have lots of folks in our church that "carry". I'm still not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing...

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