Terrorism in Houses of Worship: Awareness and Prevention

Acts of violence in our church communities are happening with greater frequency in this rapidly changing society. We must be prepared. Parish communities should develop plans in the event a violent situation occurs.

Many people think of a house of worship as a safe area where violence and emergencies cannot affect them. However, as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security points out in their Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship, violence in houses of worship is not a new phenomenon. In addition to violent acts, fires, tornados, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and arson also affect houses of worship.

With countless incidents occurring with little to no warning, many houses of worship are developing and updating plans and procedures to ensure the safety and security of their congregations, staff, volunteers and facilities. The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Risk Management encourage all parishes to create a safety committee and to implement emergency plans and procedures. The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness has developed a Terrorism Awareness and Prevention Program that provides training to assist the Diocese.

Principals of the Plan

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security advises that the following principles are key to developing a house of worship safety plan that addresses a range of threats and hazards:

  • Planning should be supported by leadership. The leadership of the house of worship should initiate and support planning efforts to ensure engagement from the congregation and outreach to the entire community. Regardless of the size of the house of worship, one or more persons should lead emergency planning efforts.
  • Planning considers all threats and hazards. The planning process should take into account a wide range of possible threats and hazards that may affect the house of worship, and should address safety needs before, during, and after an incident.
  • Planning considers all settings and all times. It is important to remember that threats and hazards can affect the house of worship at non-standard times (e.g., when facilities are being used by others), as well as off-site (e.g., an activity or event sponsored somewhere other than the grounds of the house of worship).
  • Planning provides for the access and functional needs of the entire house of worship community. The entire house of worship community includes regular attendees, guests, volunteers and staff, including those with disabilities and others with access and functional needs; those from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds; and people with limited English proficiency.

How to Begin

To begin creating a safety plan, you must first put together a team that will be responsible for developing the plan, reaching out to first responders, and providing training or education to others. The team should meet at regular intervals, first to develop a plan and later to implement and assess it and make revisions when necessary.

Conduct Assessments

One of the team’s first tasks should be to conduct safety assessments of the premises. A safety assessment is an evaluation of your parish community’s current state of safety, security, and preparedness for an emergency. Begin your assessment by gathering information, inspecting facilities, speaking to individuals, and evaluating processes already in place.  

Involve First Responders

Next, set up meetings with local first responders to share with them the results of your safety assessment and ask for their advice. First responders are on the front lines of incidents and can often bring attention to something you easily overlooked.

In addition, if your parish has floor plans, share them with the first responders. If your parish does not, be sure to develop floor plans that you can share. The floor plans should be simple diagrams of each floor of each building, marked to show exterior doors, windows, stairwells, fire doors, and the numbers and uses of all rooms and areas.

Develop a plan for communicating to other areas of the building. For example, if your parish has a nursery, is there a way to communicate a lockdown or evacuation order to the nursery in the event an active shooter enters the church? This is another area where first responders can offer expertise.

Security Self-Assessment

The NJ Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness has prepared a Facility Self-Assistance tool to aid the small business community and nonprofit organizations in identifying potential areas of site security concerns. By answering a series of security-related practices or equipment questions, users may quickly identify potential ares of security concern. Any question that has received a check in the "No" box may be an area of security concern. You can download the tool here:

Facility Self-Assistance Document

One of the greatest challenges our worship communities face is striking a balance between the security measures we take and the need to maintain an open, inviting and Christ-like atmosphere. The odds of a terrorist incident occurring at your parish may not seem likely, but you still need to be prepared.

We will notify pastors once meeting and training dates for Terrorism Awareness and Prevention are established in the Diocese of Trenton.

For more information on Department of Homeland Security resources, please go to their Protecting Houses of Worship webpage.