By Eddie Pipkin

Unless you have been in a cave on your yearly no-technology retreat to Borneo, you know that Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during the live Oscars telecast a couple of weeks ago.  I happened to be watching it in real-time when it happened, and, like many, I first thought there was a technical glitch, then that it was clearly a staged bit, settling eventually into a bewildered state of “What just happened?”  The Interwebs, of course, had a field day.  It was the kind of pop-culture moment that offered itself up as a Rorschach test for all manner of hot-button societal topics.  I have no doubt that it made it into plenty of sermons last weekend.  But analyzing how ill-prepared the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences turned out to be for what went down, it got me to wondering how much planning ministry leaders do to anticipate the unexpected.

It turned out that during the commercial breaks of the Oscars, as well as off-screen during the broadcast, there were a flurry of discussions as the people in charge tried to decide what to do.  Reports emerged that the award show officials asked Smith to leave, but he declined to do so, and for that they really didn’t have a game plan.  Keep in mind that there were reams of security on hand at the theater.  The powers that be just hadn’t contemplated a scenario in which that security might have to be used to forcibly remove one of the biggest stars on the planet against his will.

Local church leadership should have policies in place when possible to direct responses to crises, disruptions, and emergencies.  Leadership teams for specific ministry areas should regularly discuss hypothetical scenarios for dilemmas large and small and how they might respond to them.

There was a major focus on facility and event security in the months prior to the pandemic, when a prominent news topic at the time was a spate of church shootings.  (“How could the news get any darker and crazier than that?” we naively thought at the time.)  Local church gatherings are fraught emotional spaces.  There was (and continues to be) healthy debate about balancing the goal of security with the goal of creating a welcoming atmosphere – we want to keep people safe above all else, but we don’t want to manifest an oppressive atmosphere – of course, it is a sad acknowledgement of modern life that anytime any of us ventures out into public spaces where we congregate with lots of people, some of whom are unfamiliar to us, we feel comforted by some overt signs of security.  Summits were held to discuss options and plenty of resources and articles offering advice have been generated.

Needless to say, even local churches who had been wrestling with those issues in good faith in, let’s say, February of 2020, suddenly found themselves wrestling with a whole new set of unanticipated problems which have occupied an inordinate amount of bandwidth.  By summer of 2020, figuring out security at events with big crowds was not a pressing problem.  Summer of 2022 will be a different story.  Crowds are once again surging, and, sadly, reports of shootings are increasing in proportion.  The Will Smith / Chris Rock dust-up is a good reminder that we should revisit the security discussions of 2020.

All local churches should have a security plan in place.  However detailed such a plan is, it should be an agreed-upon intentional plan that staff and leadership have thoughtfully put in place.  You may have decided to implement a rigorous, professional, highly visible protocol with an armed, uniformed officer at the entryway on Sunday mornings, or you may have taken a lighter touch, but there should be a discussion and a plan, and there should be someone who is responsible for the implementation and the maintenance of that plan.

Training is essential for your staff and key volunteers.  The Practical Advice for Keeping Your Church Safe” article has some useful thoughts on that: for instance, training your ministry leaders to be attuned to families who are going through trying times.  Such people we know, who are already part of our regular community, are far more likely to create an uncomfortable incident than a random stranger is.  Children and Youth ministry leaders are far more likely to experience uncomfortable or dangerous situations, and their training and preparation should be ramped up accordingly.  Hospitality Team members are also frontline sentinels who should be trained in keeping their eyes open as they watch for abnormal behavior, and every single Hospitality Team member should have a clear idea of what to do if a situation arises.  This should be true for any kind of emergency, be it security or medical, or even logistical (what to do when we run out of chairs or bulletins or communion supplies).

In terms of uncomfortable altercations, whether or not they rise to the level of a slap, one of the most helpful things that staff and leadership can do is to occasionally take time to ‘game out’ potential scenarios.

Inventing scenarios and improvising hypothetical resolutions can be very useful.  It gives participants a confidence for reacting in the moment to real-life situations.  It sometimes solves problems in advance, since some scenarios are actually very predictable (a parent who becomes irate; a child who becomes inconsolable; two youth who get into a physical altercation; someone is observed using an illegal substance on the property; someone is caught stealing).  Working through specific scenarios gives us a chance to walk through how we would react (which gives us more confidence to react when an event happens that is similar), but it is also an excellent process for working through general guidelines and principles.  When do we notify parents?  When do we involve law enforcement?  When do we ban an offender from participating in activities?  When do we notify the Lead Pastor or other senior leadership about an incident?

Staff and key volunteers should be trained in conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques.

We have a special responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ to promote peace and healing.  Taking this responsibility seriously means availing ourselves of the resources to practice tried and true techniques for turning down the heat in volatile scenarios.  Radical peacemaking can keep an uncomfortable exchange from becoming a dangerous moment, but such crisis management requires education and practice.  Such training also helps our people recognize when a red line has been crossed and a bully must be dealt with in order to preserve the wellbeing of a victim.  This, too, should be done in a professional, methodical manner.

Hopefully, none of us will find ourselves in a story line anytime soon in which a badly delivered joke provokes someone to stride up the stage steps and slap us, but if we do, it makes sense to have thought through how we might respond and for the people who are responsible for the safety and security of the room to think through how they might respond, too.

How about you and your ministry?  Do you have an official security plan in place?  Do you train your staff and key leadership in emergency scenarios on a regular basis?  Do you feature conflict resolution and de-escalation training as part of your culture?  Imagine a whole congregation – imagine a whole community – which regularly received such training!  What a more peaceful world we would be promoting.  What a lovely act of discipleship that would be.