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Illustration by Michael Waraksa

House of Worship Security Funding Extends Beyond Grants

Houses of worship around the world are built on a foundation of openness, accessibility, and hospitality to guests and congregants alike. However, recent terrorist attacks on churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious institutions are forcing congregations to rethink their security posture. This fundamental shift brings innumerable challenges, from funding to training to culture.

Terror attacks in Europe drove governments to place armed police or military troops at the entrance to many houses of worship, and the buildings themselves are increasingly fortified. But it’s hard to welcome your flock with concertina wire around the building, says Paul Goldenberg, a senior fellow with the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience with Rutgers University. Goldenberg is also president and CEO for Cardinal Point Strategies, LLC.

“It’s disheartening to believe in modernized, democratic Western societies that people are second-guessing when to pray, where to pray, and what they can wear when they do pray,” says Goldenberg.

The fundamental threats to houses of worship have changed in recent years, Goldenberg says. Twenty-five years ago, the primary outside threats to religious institutions were desecration of cemeteries, graffiti, the occasional assault, and a rare firebombing. The paradigm has shifted, though, and disaffected persons are acting out against religious facilities and peoples of faith.

“It has now become a much more complex and a much more sinister environment,” he adds. “That’s why we really do need to focus on changing the culture of security from one of reaction to one of prevention and resiliency.”

But improving security comes at a price, and houses of worship are often operating on shoestring budgets based on donations from congregants. While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Congress are providing increasing levels of grant funding to protect houses of worship from terrorism or soft target attacks, religious leaders should not solely rely on grant funding to support all security improvements.

According to Jeffrey A. Slotnick, CPP, PSP, president of Setracon, Inc., and former chairman of the ASIS Physical Security Council, out of 100 applicants for a religious institution security grant in the Seattle area, approximately five will receive the funding.

In addition, U.S. federal and state funds are usually onetime grants that are earmarked to address a specific aspect of church security, whether that’s adding physical security technology or building in blast-resistant windows or anti-ram bollards. Those funds do not extend to the long-term, ongoing process of maintaining aging security systems, employing security personnel, or holding training exercises.

Furthermore, the grant process can take a significant amount of time, especially because competition for grants is tight, says John Torres, president of the security and technology consulting practice at Guidepost Solutions. Houses of worship can improve their chances by performing security assessments ahead of writing their grant application to provide a well-informed, specific plan of action.

Evaluating security needs—including any current threats or risks, the resources available in the community, security solutions and technology, and training gaps—can help houses of worship prioritize what requires outside funding and what can begin right away.

For example, a full-scale video surveillance system might be cost-prohibitive for a church in the U.S. Midwest, but a security awareness training session or active assailant drill for employees, ushers, and volunteers could be easily within budget.

As faith-based facilities diversify in purpose—adding community centers, daycares, schools, and senior programs—having a security-focused culture is essential, says Paula Ratliff, author of Crime Prevention for Houses of Worship and a member of the ASIS Cultural Properties Committee and Houses of Worship subcommittee.

“Our employees and volunteers tend to be more trusting and less suspicious of those who enter, believing that people are coming for the right reasons and not to do harm,” she says. “We must change that mind-set by teaching observational skills and a security consciousness.”

Religious and community leaders in faith-based organizations need to endorse security programs and keep them top-of-mind for congregations and boards of directors. As congregations and demographics change, Ratliff says security programs must also evolve to keep from falling into complacency.

While there are many resources and templates available for houses of worship to use as a base for security plans, Ratliff adds that it is essential to develop effective security plans for each facility, taking the size, design, and usage into account.

Emergency preparedness and planning should extend beyond security incidents, Slotnick notes. “As in any business, executives, full-time and part-time staff, and clergy need to have a plan, policy, and procedure for dealing with adversity, whether that’s an earthquake or an active shooter incident,” he says. “Any of these things can happen at any time, and not being prepared is not an option.”

It is essential for the faith-based community to build a capacity for self-help, he adds. While many federal programs are available, including through FEMA, ASIS standards, and training through the Office of Bombing Prevention at DHS, most communities don’t avail themselves of these resources, he adds. (See “The Emotional Traps of Soft Target Security,” Security Management, September 2019.)

Slotnick developed a four-hour usher and greeter security course that teaches verbal de-escalation, physical security fundamentals, security awareness, behavioral observation, and how to report those activities to appropriate authorities with any necessary details such as license plate numbers or descriptions of suspects.

Observant ushers can detect unusual behavior or visitors better than a surveillance camera, but they are usually lacking the knowledge of what to do next, Slotnick says. Training these volunteers and congregants on what to do if they see suspicious behavior, an abandoned package, or a stranger taking notes about the facility can help catch a potential attacker in the preoperational surveillance phase and address the risk before it escalates.

Although shifting the culture of faith-based organizations to be more security-conscious can help with awareness and detection, many security improvements still require additional budget; houses of worship will need to get creative.

Funding can be raised in security-specific donation drives, or by raising membership fees, Slotnick says. In these cases, however, faith-based organizations should be transparent with board members and congregants about security and preparedness goals, where the money is going, and which key performance indicators will be used to determine success.

Goldenberg recommends that houses of worship—regardless of religion or denomination—in a community pool their resources to make the most out of the funding in their region and save on technology purchases and service contracts.

By forming a community security working group, multiple organizations can hold joint training sessions with local or federal law enforcement agencies on security awareness or emergency response. It’s likely that one of the houses of worship within the group has a retired or active law enforcement or security professional in its congregation who could serve as an in-house subject matter expert.

The community security working group can hire a single guard firm to perform roving patrols around the properties and share information with law enforcement. Members of the group can also chip in to purchase surveillance cameras in bulk and integrate them into a centralized monitoring office with a well-trained, alert staff.

“Religious institutions around the country are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on video cameras,” Goldenberg says. “Those video cameras will only provide the police with essential information as to who and how an act of violence was perpetrated against your institution. If you don’t make the investment to train your staff on how to monitor those cameras or what to look for as it relates to a suspicious incident, then those cameras will only help find the bad people who have done bad things; they may not help prevent an attack.”

“An attack on one American house of worship is an attack on them all,” Goldenberg adds, noting that attackers are looking to kill people at a house of worship because of their religious beliefs and often do not distinguish between a synagogue, a church, a temple, or a mosque. By operating as a joint working group, a collection of faith-based organizations can improve security without duplicating their efforts and their spending.