Protecting property proves to be tougher in troubled times
By Robert Mims
Tough economic times have hit church budgets hard. Not only
has rising unemployment strained offering-based incomes, but property crimes
also are exacting a painful toll.
In its inaugural “Crimes Against Christian Organizations in
the United States” report, the Christian Security Network recently put the
combined national tab for burglary, theft, robbery, arson and vandalism at $6.3
million for the first six months of 2009 alone.
Jeffrey A. Hawkins, executive director of CSN, says
burglaries accounted for 64 percent of church property crimes from January
through June, but the level of internal thefts proved to be surprising and
disturbing as well.
In studying nearly 500 incidents in 42 states, CSN — a
national provider of training, information and resources to help faith-based
organizations address safety concerns — put losses from internal thefts
at $2.3 million. The figure is likely much higher, as many losses go unreported
It is the very nature of Christian congregations to trust
the people within the church, whether secretaries, treasurers or those
collecting the offering, Hawkins says.
“But we are all sinners, all tempted, and all likely to
fall,” Hawkins says. “Churches need to have controls in place.”
Chuck Brewster, a retired Secret Service agent who is CEO of
the Pensacola, Fla.-based Church Security Insights consulting group, warns that
many congregations are behind the curve when it comes to meeting the challenges
of protecting both life and property.
“Church really is not the ‘safe zone’ anymore that we used
to take for granted,” Brewster says. “There is a deterioration of respect for
authority, and now the church is just another place to break into, defame,
vandalize or attack.”
Brewster, former national director of the Assemblies of
God’s HonorBound Men’s Ministries, says the most effective countermeasure in
these more dangerous times is to establish both inner and outer “security
“Churches leave themselves open for break-ins and thefts
because we are so trusting as a church community,” he says. Instead of opening
an entire church building on Sunday mornings, Brewster suggests establishing
areas that require permission to enter.
“We need to be more mindful of the property that God has
provided for us, and realize there are many now who would come and steal that
property,” Brewster says.
Many congregations have yet to implement even commonsense
solutions, Hawkins laments.
“Churches need to do background checks on all staff and
volunteers, especially if they are handling money,” he advises. “People not
related to each other should count tithes and offerings.”
Regular review of church credit card receipts and other
financial transactions is recommended.
John Heckathorn, administrative pastor at Life Church of Utah,
an Assemblies of God congregation, adds a few more recommendations: “Buy a
fireproof and theft-proof safe — and limit the number of persons who have
access to the combination and even the room in which the safe is located,” he
“No person should ever handle church money alone,”
Heckathorn adds. “And no cash, checks or credit cards should be left
Life Church, in West Valley City, also must guard against
break-ins, theft and vandalism. In recent years, two cars were stolen from the
1,100-strong congregation’s parking lot. Thieves took car keys from an unlocked
choir room (it is now always locked, and belongings are stored in a secure
cabinet). Additionally, two church-owned vehicles were damaged with a crowbar
during unsuccessful attempts to steal them, and gang graffiti has showed up on
a nearby wall.
Life Church uses a key- and password-protected alarm system,
has installed heavy-duty locks that must be opened by key with each entry, and
has strategically placed bright lighting in the parking lot and along its
Smaller churches — which make up the bulk of
Assemblies of God congregations — may not be able to afford such
measures. But that does not mean they don’t have effective options to safeguard
property and finances, says Jeff Schexneider, senior pastor of Calvary Assembly
of God in Elizabethtown, Ky.
Schexneider says the problems his congregation of 100
worshippers has faced have been relatively minor, so far: The church’s sign has
been tampered with a couple of times, and the fuel line on a church van was cut
by gasoline thieves.
Calvary has a simple, motion-detection-based alarm system in
place. It has been tripped a number of times, proving an effective deterrent to
would-be burglars, Schexneider says.
“We also maintain our exterior security lights by replacing
bad lights or bulbs immediately, and have moved our vehicles to more visible
parking places,” he adds.
Both Life Church and Calvary AG count on off-duty law
enforcement officers to help keep a protective eye out for church property and
worshippers during Sunday services. At Life Church, that involved hiring local
police officers for the task; Calvary happens to have a sheriff’s deputy in its
congregation whose volunteer vigilance has been a blessing, Schexneider says.
In addition to
a two-person policy for money counting, Calvary uses a background checking
service for everyone who works with children or teens in church programs.
“Thankfully, we have not had to reject anyone’s application.
But we would not hesitate to do so, if warranted,” Schexneider says.
He is convinced
even small- to medium-sized churches can benefit from having a security
assessment done on their facilities, and it need not be expensive.
“Most local police departments would be open to addressing
church security,” Schexneider suggests.
director of the criminal justice program at Evangel University in Springfield,
Mo., and CEO of Safe at Church LLC, concurs. Cirtin says there are two primary
reasons churches are seeing property losses like those reported in CSN’s study.
“Many church leaders are naïve and believe they are immune
from criminal activity,” Cirtin says. “Another reason is that our culture is
changing, and there is not the respect for the church facility as in previous
times. There are those in society who no longer have a fear of, or respect for,
God and His house.”
ROBERT MIMS is a journalist based in Salt Lake City.
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