Church Safety Training Debrief

Oct 31, 2022

“This is an offering we wish was not necessary,” wrote James Kirk, Associate for Disaster Response (U.S.) from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance about the course, Church Safety and Active Shooter Training. Last weekend, sixty people gathered from thirty-two of our PLR churches and new worshiping communities for this important day of learning. We met at Tustin Presbyterian Church and began the day with confronting the gruesome reality that active shooter incidents and casualties are undeniably on the rise in the United States.

Houses of worship, though small in terms of total representation of incident locations, are sadly targets for hate groups that seek to make political and/or racial statements. Since May and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, there have been over 200 attacks on Catholic Churches in the US.

Our own presbytery experienced its first incident of gun violence motivated by racial-ethnic hate when on May 15, 2022, a gunman opened fire at a post-worship luncheon at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church (ITPC), which meets at Geneva Presbyterian Church. This worshiping community was targeted because of its ethnicity and its vulnerability; and if not for the sacrificial and heroic acts of its members, the results would have been mass casualties.

Panel Discussion with leaders from ITPC and Geneva

PDA Trainer, Ron Botrell, led a panel discussion with the leadership involved in this incident. Pastor Albany Lee of ITPC shared how he responded personally as a pastor and how the church’s leadership worked together to provide immediate care and support for the victim’s family and all who were traumatized by the event. Lee acknowledged how his focus on the immediate needs of the congregation helped him to separate from the media frenzy. Pastoral care and counseling continue to this day.

Rev. Steven Marsh from Geneva went on to discuss how his church and their leadership team took cues from ITPC on how best to provide help and support. These two faith communities have enjoyed a 20+ year relationship and often share in worship and fellowship. Rev. Marsh acknowledged how the shooting on their campus left many of its members feeling vulnerable as well, even though they were not the intended targets.

Laura McCallum, Office Manager of Geneva, discussed her response from the perspective of the facility and insurance. Geneva hosts a preschool and a grade school. The follow-up response to this incident has resulted in many enhanced church safety protocols, which the Geneva session, ITPC and the schools continue to assess and modify. Both churches are in the process of healing.

The afternoon session was centered on Active Shooter Preparedness, with guidance from the ALICE Training Institute. Our trainers from PDA adapted the principles of ALICE for the church environment, where many of our participants are young children and older adults. We practiced drills on how to walk and assess our property, how to greet newcomers and the “Power of Hello,” and the important role that our ushers and greeters play.

An awareness of vulnerabilities will help our church communities plan and prepare for potential incidents that threaten our safety. Our trainers encouraged us to take this advice back to our congregations: Run fire and lockdown drills every six months. This sort of training will help our leaders and our church members know what to expect when the unexpected happens and the routine drills will give participants confidence to all participants that a safety plan is in place and everyone has a job to do.

Developing a church safety plan is critical. Again, we wish we didn’t have to do this, but wishing for this does not change the reality of our contentious and increasingly violent world. Our trainers spent the last portion of our meeting discussing how to develop such a plan:

  • Pick the right team members
  • Collaborate with community members
  • Seek guidance from law enforcement/insurer
  • Get to know one another
  • Define and assign roles, responsibilities
  • Establish regular schedule of meetings
  • Sell the plan (to leadership and congregation)
  • Cycle of developing, educating, practicing, revising

As a presbytery, we are continually reminded of the blessings of community and partnership. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, an organization committed to immediate crisis responses as well as crisis preparedness, provided us with important lessons that will have a powerful rippling effect in our congregations when we put these practices into place. James Kirk wrote in a follow up to our day of training, “I do believe that preparation empowers in the midst of overwhelming circumstances.”

The Presbytery of Los Ranchos has gathered important resources and information for our congregations and has posted a page on our website for you to access:

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Trainers:

Ron Bottrell, Evanston, Illinois; Member of PDA National Response Team since 2010; retired Crisis Management Consultant.

Rev. Suzanne Malloy, Santa Barbara, CA; Member of PDA National Response Team since 2010; Former police sergeant and crisis responder for UC-Santa Barbara Police Department and Isla Vista Foot Patrol.

Rev. John Cheek, Tucson, AZ; Member of PDA National Response Team since 2011; Twenty-plus years of law enforcement experience including Tucson Police Department.