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Church Safekeeping

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 to authorities.

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 awareness perimeters.”

“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 says.

“No person should ever handle church money alone,” Heckathorn adds. “And no cash, checks or credit cards should be left unsecured.”

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 buildings.

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.

 Robert Cirtin, 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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