An article based on the Safety Member Certification training module "Deescalating Disruptive Persons" and the Church Security Guide article "Disruptive Individuals: How to De-escalate the Situation." 
From the Bible
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9).
Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof (Proverbs 18:21).
A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1).
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver (Proverbs 25:11).
* First listen:
He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him (Proverbs 18:13).
* De-escalation requires self-control:
Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil (Psalm 37:8).
* Using verbal de-escalation may keep the subject from committing a greater wrong:
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
* Discretion is needed to know whether a disruptive person will listen:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit (Proverbs 26:4-5).
When Jesus calmed the stormy sea by speaking to it, his disciples were amazed (Matthew 8:26-27). We cannot calm winds and water with a word, but we may calm a stormy person with verbal de-escalation. This is an important skill for Church Safety Team members to learn. A calming presence may prevent harmful violence.
In the News
South Attleboro, Massachusetts, August 27, 2018 - It was Monday morning. The pastor of South Attleboro Assembly of God (now Crossroads International Church AG), took his wife and their children to Dayspring Christian Academy. He then crossed the driveway to the church. First he went into his office to gather a few items, then went into the lobby on his way to the sanctuary to pick up a power cable he'd left there.
In the lobby the pastor was shocked when he saw a man with a gun sitting in a chair. He was sweating and shaking, pointing the gun at himself. When the man saw the pastor, he relaxed and lowered the gun.
"Can I help you?" the pastor asked. No response. The pastor offered to call someone for help: a doctor, a counselor, the police. At the mention of "police" the man tensed up.
"Do you need help?" The man nodded yes.
The pastor thought, "I need to pray," and said, "I have to get something I left in there," pointing to the sanctuary. In the sanctuary he prayed, and God answered, "If he doesn't want help, ask him to leave."
Back in the lobby, he asked the man if he wanted to leave. That was OK. The man stood and picked up his backpack. Before leaving, he told the pastor he had come in through an unlocked side door.
After the man exited, the pastor called the police. A mile away he was spotted by two officers in cruisers. They ordered to man to stop. He turned and fired at them. They dived out of the cruisers as bullets pierced their headrests. Firing back, they wounded the man. Taking his gun away, they administered First Aid until medics came and took him to the hospital.
Later that week, the pastor and the board reviewed security procedures in light of the unlocked door.
Fayetteville, North Carolina, December 31, 2015 - It was New Year's Eve, and a Watch Night service was in progress at a downtown Fayetteville church. During the service, about 11:40 pm, a man walked in carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle. Church members were startled. A pregnant woman left the service. However one person responded calmly.
The pastor, who was also a city councilman, paused his sermon and approached the man with the rifle. Some may have said this was foolhardy, but he noticed that there was no clip in the gun - it was in the man's other hand. He calmed the man, who gave the pastor his rifle. After a short while, he pastor prayed with the intruder.
When the police came, they said the man was a veteran with PTSD.
Jacksonville, Texas, September 13, 2015 - The Sunday Morning service was long over. While members were planning for the Fall Fest, a man with an Arabic name asked a deacon outside if he could speak with the pastor. The deacon pointed the way.
When the pastor saw the man, he felt it was not good - more like something bad. This sense was informed by his experience as a parole officer. This experience also included verbal de-escalation.
The visitor began a tirade of being a follower of Islam. He also said he was hounded by demons.
The pastor got him to state his full name and his reason for being there. The man said that as a Muslim he could kill any Jew or Christian (Infidel) who opposed Islam. Then he became very agitated.
The pastor stayed calm. His training and experience included working with the mentally ill as well as with troubled youth.
He got the man to calm down, then patted him on the shoulder - a move to let him see if the bulge he saw was a gun. It was, and with a clip.
Saying he was going to see that the children were OK, the pastor stepped into the hall and whispered to his wife and another member, "We got a problem. Get everybody out of the church."
Members left, got into their cars and hit the road heading north. The pastor left, too. "After all," he told his wife, "We can get another church [building]." The visitor left, too, heading south. When the pastor returned to the church, he found a note thanking the people and the pastor for their kindness.
Martin County, Florida, March 19, 2022 - Saturday evening, March 19, 2022, saw an hours-long tense drama on an overpass above the Florida Turnpike.
A man whose mother passed away two weeks earlier and whose brother had just died, was trying to climb up to the rail, intending to jump to his death. Sheriff's deputies arrived, including those with the Behavioral Health Unit.
Traffic on the turnpike was stopped in both directions for hours while the deputies kept him from jumping. Finally he asked for the Chief Deputy by name. The CD was able to persuade him to go with the deputies. They took him to a mental health facility while traffic on the turnpike resumed.
Videocast and Show Notes
This article is discussed by Kris in a Sheepdog Church Security Academy videocast (the audio is on a Church Security Roll Call podcast). Below the video screen is a link to the Weekly Show Notes (article summary). This PDF can be printed or linked to share and discuss with others.
Also available is another free download, "Behavioral Emergencies." This three-page PDF has a brief overview of behavioral emergencies and how to respond using verbal de-escalation. At the bottom is a link to a resource web page. Click *HERE* to get it.
A Tense Situation
We are fallible human beings. This means we can become agitated and upset by less-than-reasonable causes. This can lead to arguing, loud talking or shouting, and - if gone far enough - to physical violence.
At this time, in our societies, it seems that there are many factors leading to more stress and making the world a less peaceable place. Part of this is the constant flood of news 24/7. Trouble has always been a part of life on Planet Earth, but now we hear more about it non-stop. This does make it harder for many people to handle the stress in their own lives.
In our churches it is easy to say, "Trust God." Then we read in the Bible that saints of old had their weak moments when a summary of their prayers would be, "Lord, take me out of all this." The reality is that we are not exempt from this kind of despair, and neither are the others who come into our church. Fortunately, we have also been endowed with the ability to think and to reason with other people. Using this ability to calm upset persons and to reduce the level of anger is verbal de-escalation. Some may naturally have the knack to do this. Others of us need to learn it.
What leads to a Behavioral Emergency?
It is important to have an idea of what is causing a behavioral emergency. A number of the leading factors are a lack of self-discipline, mental illness, some developmental disabilities, medical conditions or issues (especially if medications are neglected), and drug or alcohol abuse. A few may have ideological, political, racial/ethnic, or religious bias.
Another contributing factor is personal trauma, such as:
- Family problems -
- Marital discord
- Abuse at home
- Problems with children
- Personal loss -
- Death of loved one or close friend
- Loss of property to
- Natural disaster
- Human-caused disaster
- Financial distress
- Legal pressure -
- Civil suit
- Criminal charges
- Tax issues
- Negative social treatment -
- Social media harassment
Signs of an Impending Behavioral Emergency
"Look out!" -
- As children we were told to look both ways before crossing the street.
- In Driver's Ed we were taught to look both ways before entering an intersection, even if the other road is a one-way street.
- A close call with a shopping cart reminds us to watch for other shoppers while looking for our items.
- And we shouldn't assume drivers are all driving slowly and watchfully while we walk through a parking lot.
Church Safety Team members should watch people and be aware of disruption that is brewing. A common co-factor is anxiety. Signs of anxiety do not always mean that a person is about to become disruptive, but they do mean that the person needs some level of comfort or help, even if it is just an empathetic listening ear. This is a good place to start in our social interactions, even when we are not on Safety Team duty. It makes verbal de-escalation come more naturally when needed.
On its page "Violence and Harassment in the Workplace" the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has a section "What are warning signs of a troubled person or employee?" We'll only give a few signs here for the sake of brevity.
In People We Know
We may notice some changes in persons we know. There may be changes in behavior patterns, in how frequently they're upset, and how many disruptive signs they show.
Behavioral Signs of Disruption
- Crying, sulking or temper tantrums.
- Pushing the limits of acceptable conduct
- Handles criticism poorly.
- Holds grudges.
Physical Signs of Disruption
- Flushed or pale face.
- Pacing, restless, or repetitive movements.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Violating personal space
Keeping It Calm
Ask law enforcement officers about responding to a tense situation, and most will say how they approach it. They are focused on keeping or restoring the peace.
When we see the need to actively keep things calm in the foyer (or whatever location in the church), keep in mind the four goals of verbal de-escalation. Here's what the Church Security Guide article says:
- Keep lines of communication open.
- Get the person talking.
- Actively listen..
- Maintain control through clear and calm communication.
Begin with a careful approach. Come from a direction where they can see you and won't feel ambushed. Then you can talk with them without them feeling threatened. Maintain eye contact without staring.
Try to learn what you can. When the person gets to talk, he or she does not feel ignored. It's better for them to talk than to act disruptively. If what you do say is clear and simple, the other person may understand.
Maintaining control is a key goal. Essentially, it keeps the situation from getting out of hand. This begins and continues with self-control:
- Control your posture
- Control your facial expressions
- Control your body language
- Control your choice of words
- Control your language
- Control your urge to do all the talking
Stepping into a potentially violent situation has its risks. Just ask any officer having to respond to a domestic violence call or a gang fight in an alley.
- If the situation in the church has the potential for violence, call for backup.
- Have another team member nearby, but in a different direction.
- Approach slowly so the person does not feel rushed.
- Stand close enough to talk, but not in their personal space.
- Keep your hands in front of you, calm but ready to respond.
- Be alert for indications of a weapon.
Verbal de-escalation is a key skill for keeping the peace in church as well as for helping disturbed persons.
"Deescalating Disruptive Persons" is one of eight training modules in the Safety Member Certification program. Each Church Safety Team is urged to have all its members trained and certified. There are three training formats:
- Team Certification (church-hosted classes) are great for training a new team and for biennial recertification.
- Individual Certification (self-paced online instruction) is the best way to immediately train new members to an existing team. It is also available for a member who cannot attend a training class with the team.
- Online Events (live Zoom classes) is open to both groups and individuals. The next season (school year) begins in the Fall.
Additionally, auditing (taking a class without going through the whole program) is advantageous for staff and volunteers in the church when the subject applies to their areas of responsibility. For example, teachers and youth leaders should take "Deescalating Disruptive Persons" and "Protecting Children from Abuse," and ushers and greeters need "Arson and Fire Safety.".
On deck for next week is the article "2020 Grace Baptist Church Stabbing" (Lesson Learned).
- Kris Moloney. "Safety Member Certification," Sheepdog Church Security, © 2020 [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/].
- Kris Moloney, Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security [/church-security-guide/].
- Kris Moloney, "Disruptive Individuals: How to De-escalate the Situation," Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2018 [/verbal-de-escalation].
- Abbey Niezgoda, "Pastor Who Confronted Gunman Before Shootout With Police Speaks Out," NBC Boston, August 28, 2018 [https://www.nbcboston.com/news/local/attleboro-massachusetts-pastor-who-confronted-gunman-before-police-arrived-speaks-out/137024/].
- Dan Van Veen, "Pastor Faces Gunman in Church Foyer," Assemblies of God News, August 29, 2018 [https://news.ag.org/en/News/Pastor-Faces-Gunman-in-Church-Foyer].
- By CNN Wire, "North Carolina pastor calms, prays with church gunman during service," Fox8 WGHP, January 3, 2016 [https://myfox8.com/news/north-carolina-pastor-calms-prays-with-church-gunman-during-service/].
- Andrew Barksdale, "Fayetteville councilman calms church gunman," Fayetteville (NC) Observer; Re-posted by member AbideinHim on SermonIndex.net, January 8, 2016 [https://www.sermonindex.net/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=56017&forum=44].
- Emily Guevara, "Pastor calms man during church threat," Tyler Morning Telegraph, September 15, 2015 [https://tylerpaper.com/news/local/pastor-calms-man-during-church-threat/article_925f934b-ac87-5811-8172-47dfbdddae99.html].
- Ryan Hughes, "Martin County chief deputy stops distraught man from taking his own life," Fox29 WFLX, March 21, 2022 [https://www.wflx.com/2022/03/21/martin-county-chief-deputy-stops-distraught-man-taking-his-own-life/].
- Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Academy, YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTrrcSlOn6zG1ySOHYzQkdQ].
- Kris Moloney, Church Security Roll Call, SoundCloud [https://soundcloud.com/churchsecurityrollcall].
- Kris Moloney, "Behavioral Emergencies," Sheepdog Church Security, © 2019 [https://sheepdog-church-security.ck.page/c225ce3542].
- Staff, "Violence and Harassment in the Workplace," Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Fact sheet last revised December 16, 2022 [https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/violence/violence_warning_signs.html].