Q&A: How Should Churches Respond to Threatening Messages?

What steps can be taken when a church receives various kinds of threats.

Churches sometimes receive a communication that can be deemed “hate mail”: a letter delivered to the church, a note placed there, an email, a voicemail left on the church’s phone. It could even be sent through a social media platform. We spoke with attorney Frank Sommerville about his experience with these situations and how churches should respond when they occur.

What’s a useful, working approach for churches in terms of understanding these messages? How can churches determine when messages need to be taken to local authorities (and when they can be dismissed)?
There is no one response. It depends on who sent it, whether it’s anonymous, whether or not it’s specific, what the threat is: It depends on lots of variables.
If taken to local authorities, would the police do anything with the threat?
Not necessarily. It depends, again, on what kind of threat: how specific it is, whether it’s from somebody who’s known or unknown. For the most part, anonymous ones that are just left at the church, or even through the mail, are a lot less credible. The more specific—the more concrete the threat is—the more you need to take it seriously. That’s about the only pattern you can ascertain from that.
The more specific and concrete the threat is, the more you need to take it seriously.
Sometimes it’s a pastoral stalker—sometimes we’ll get those. The general consensus on stalkers is you want to keep them engaged, because they’ll tell you what they’re going to do if you just keep them engaged. Exchange emails or texts with them, so you know where they’re at and what they’re doing. You want them communicating—they’re not going to communicate with the target because somebody else (probably a police officer) is intervening and playing the target for that person. Usually they’re associated with someone in the church. They may not be a member, but they may be a family member of a family that’s in the church. Or they may be a member, but they may be inactive.
You need to take the threat seriously, every time.
If you get an anonymous message and discard it, and then something happens, is that treated as a foreseeable event? Could the church be held liable?
Again, it’s specifics. If I sent you an anonymous email that said, “On Thursday morning, when you’re having a staff meeting here, I’m going to kill you,” that’s specific enough. And if your organization did not take any precautions to make sure that did not happen on Thursday morning, it could be liable for not taking those. But if you got an email that simply said, “I’m going to kill you,” there’s nothing your organization could be responsible for because it’s not foreseeable when or if that’s going to happen.
But even so, you said to take these threats seriously every time. Does that mean contacting law enforcement immediately?
If it’s a threat of violence, you contact law enforcement immediately.

What about messages that may not explicitly state violence, but that contain the implied possibility—e.g., “I’m going to take care of you”?

Those are harder to take seriously. Law enforcement is going to ask, “Who do you think sent it, and what do you think they mean by that?” You’re going to get two hours of grilling if you send that to law enforcement to help identify who, potentially, that threat came from. If it was via email, they’ll want to get access to your computer so they can trace your IP address back to the address where it was sent from. There are lots of tools out there, but I think if it comes out of the blue with not a clue, there’s not a whole lot law enforcement can do, either. Frequently, you just trash something like that.

In “Responding to Anonymous Allegations ,” attorney Richard Hammar provides insight as to how church leaders should respond to anonymous allegations.

Frank Sommerville is a both a CPA and attorney, and a longtime Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax.

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