Keep Your Parish Safe With These Essential Tips

by Faith & Life, Mass

“So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. “ Luke, 2:3

It is easy to imagine the chaos that consumed Bethlehem during Caesar’s census.  It is fitting, because like Mary and Joseph, we too are likely spending this time of year traveling, visiting the places and people we grew up with.  Or, we find ourselves making more room in our own “inns,” with the addition of folding chairs and air mattresses being placed out to accommodate others.

As we spend this season waiting in joyful hope, it is prudent to remind ourselves of some best practices to keep ourselves and our sacred spaces safe during this time of year, especially since we tend to find more people in the pews.

First and foremost, it is vital that pastors, priests, liturgical ministers, ushers, greeters, our musicians and parish office staff understand what is “normal” in their church at this time of year.  Do you see an uptick in visits to the food pantry, requests for cash or help with bills, increased or decreased Mass attendance, and increased or decreased levels of what I’ll call “Christian charity” in the pews or parking lots?  John’s Gospel gives us the image of the good shepherd and says: “I know my own, and my own know me” (Jn 10:14).  By knowing what is normal, we are better able to identify the abnormal, as it is these behaviors that we should pay the most attention to when evaluating risks. 

Have A Plan

Churches should have clearly defined plans in place for 3 types of events: Exit/Evacuation Scenarios, Medical Emergencies and Liturgical Disruptions.  

Exit and Quick Evacuation plans are necessary to ensure an orderly egress from the building in the event of a fire, armed intruder, or other emergency, such as a gas leak or carbon monoxide alarm.  During this time of year our gathering areas and pews are more crowded and aisles are often filled, particularly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Ushers should be keeping aisles and all exits clear of people and other obstructions.

Medical Emergencies increase in proportion to the number of people gathered for worship.  Most common are instances of people slipping and falling during periods of inclement weather, people passing out during Mass, or people experiencing heart attacks.  Ushers and greeters should be very familiar with how to respond to these incidents, and should know where special equipment, such as an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) is located.  Liturgical Norms dictate that the priest-celebrant may not leave the sanctuary once Mass has begun, however it may be appropriate for another priest to be summoned from the rectory, or if clerics are assembled “in choir” they may be asked to help comfort the person who has fallen ill.

Sadly, acts of liturgical disruption are on the rise throughout the United States.  In the post-Dobbs era, individuals and groups are targeting Catholic churches in particular and, at best, are interrupting liturgies or harassing parishioners as they assemble for worship.  Other acts of disruption have gone so far as to set fire to Catholic schools and churches, destroy or deface statues on parish grounds, and/or steal tabernacles and the Holy Eucharist contained therein.   As in the case of the medical emergencies above, it would be wise to have a non-celebrant priest or deacon, who has completed verbal de-escalation training, calmly address these individuals, ideally while waiting for law enforcement to respond.  Liturgical ministers should practice continuing their readings over the sounds of the heckling, and church musicians could wisely play a popular hymn to down out protesters as well.  

Don’t Overlook the Ordinary

Beyond these most extreme, worst-case examples, the ordinary “stuff” that makes up our Christmas preparation also poses risks we must remain mindful of.

  • As we decorate our churches (and homes) be mindful of the risks associated with tripping over extension cords, and be careful decorations, particularly Christmas trees, do not obstruct emergency exits, and/or signage directing people to those exits.
  • Circuits should also not be overloaded, and any extension cords and holiday lights should be in good repair and bear the Underwriters Laboratories seal.  Never use extension cords through walls or as permanent wiring.
  • Take great care when using ladders to hang decorations.  In colder climates rungs may quickly become slick or covered with snow and ice.  Each year thousands of people are treated in emergency departments for falls from ladders that occurred while trimming their trees.
  • Ensure parish grounds are properly maintained; remedy cracked or uneven pavement prior to accumulating snowfalls.  Ensure that parking lots are plowed and salted and that walkways are shoveled and salted.  Keep mop buckets and signage on hand to minimize slipping hazards indoors.
  • Secure the Christmas collection.  Follow normal counting procedures as defined by your Parish Finance Council or by Diocesan directives.   Call your local police department non-emergency number and ask if an officer may be available to provide a courtesy escort to the bank.
  • Keep Nativity sets secure, particularly those outdoors.  Proper illumination alone will help deter theft or vandalism, but erecting a fence around the scene, or enclosing the entire display in a manager with a thick plexiglass front fastened with security screws is even more effective.  This year, with the post-Dobbs protests, we anticipate both the Baby Jesus and Mary figures to be targets for theft and male figures to be targets for protests against patrimony.
  • Use real candles.  Often.  But safely.  Few things add to worship as powerfully as a darkened Church that begins to glow from the light of beeswax tapers.  With crowds, however, these candles pose a risk of starting a fire, melting clothes (particularly synthetic fibers) and burning parishioners.  We are decidedly pro-candle, however we suggest that ushers collect the candles in flame-proof containers after the entrance hymn.   If nothing else, the ladies that clean the Church after Monday morning Mass will appreciate this!

Finally, if you are traveling and attending Mass at an unfamiliar Church, take a minute prior to Mass to identify at least two exits that you and your family could use in the event of an emergency.  In fact, do this for any store you shop in, restaurant you dine in, or hotel you stay in.  

Most of all, let us remember that this season is one of rejoicing.  Angels in Luke’s Christmas narrative remind us that we should “not be afraid.”  This Christmas, let us give “Glory to God in the highest,” and let us also take care of each other.

Looking for more help keeping your parish safe? Visit Crossed Keys helps schools and churches find and implement security, loss prevention and risk management practices.  In turn this allows them to remain accessible environments that welcome everyone home.

Crossed Keys Catholic school security and parish security

Image: © Can Stock Photo / alessandro0770

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