The Role of Threat Assessment
In the Bible
Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds (Proverbs 27:23).
Be informed about the needs of those who attend your church.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Outward appearances are not enough. Be perceptive of character traits.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them (Romans 16:17).
Some members may need special attention.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Hebrews 12:15).
Bitterness is one factor leading to disruptive behavior.
In the News
Lincoln, Nebraska, 2018-19 School Year - The Lincoln Public Schools district has a Threat Assessment Team. A police department threat assessment specialist is a part of the team. The team "identifies potential threats and develops interventions to help students and reduce the potential for violence." Behavior raising the concern of school staff triggers an assessment. The focus of the Threat Assessment Team is not the violation of rules, but the causes and the risks.
Several jurisdictions in the United States, Beginning in 2009 - A number of states and local jurisdictions across the country are using a document authored by Tina Lewis Rowe, a former U.S. Marshal, to advise places of worship in ongoing assessment of their safety and security.
Nationwide, Since May 2013 - The Department of Homeland Security has issued a guide for churches and other religious organizations, Houses of Worship Security Practices Guide, which is available online. It has a section on Threat Assessments (3.1-3.2.4). Section 3.2.1 covers Individual Behavior Indicators that may identify a "person of concern" who is a potential disruptor.
Special Resource for Verbal De-escalation
The training course "Deescalating Disruptive Persons" divides the topic into four sections, corresponding to the articles in this series. The subject of this article is Threat Assessment. It has three parts:
- What is Threat Assessment?
- What is a Threat Assessment Team?
- What does a Threat Assessment Team discuss?
- Right now, we have a special free downloadable resource for you. To get it, click here: <*>
- Assessing Threats to Safety & Security
- Assessing threats is a vital role in protecting the church from violent disruptions and disturbances that interfere with ministry.
What is Threat Assessment?
Threat assessment is evaluating persons and situations that could potentially cause disruptions, including violence. This is both preventative and preparatory. Proverbs 27:23 says that we are to "Know well the condition" of our flock. Most of the persons and situations discussed are within the church's circle - members, attenders, and their families. When a person is determined to be at risk of disruptive behavior, there may be an opportunity to help that person through intervention. More than protecting the church, this becomes a ministry to the people involved.
If a situation within the congregation is likely to develop into violent disruption, it may be possible to take steps to correct it before it's too late. This is also an opportunity for ministry.
Threat assessment also considers people outside the church's circle if they are potential threats to the security and safety of the flock. Church members may know of someone outside who is considering the church as a target for some kind of crime, whether simple vandalism, arson, or threats against some members or the congregation itself, and they may tell church leadership about it. People in the community may also report potential threats, and notices can come from law enforcement.
Whatever the source, a possible threat should be taken seriously enough for the Threat Assessment Team to discuss it. They should consider how serious the threat is, and at what level. Since the person(s) or the situation is outside the church, our intervention is almost always not an option. Therefore the Team has to decide what the best way is to protect the church. This includes means of identifying the persons constituting the threat so that Safety Team members and others can be on the lookout for them. Law enforcement may be asked to assist if the threat is of a serious crime (especially if deadly force or arson).
What is a Threat Assessment Team?
Except for the military and law enforcement agencies, threat assessment teams have not been regular features until recently. In a way they are similar to weather forecasting staff at the National Weather Service, but the data considered are not ocean temperatures and jet streams. Now many schools and businesses have threat assessment teams. This is mostly attributed to the rise in mass killings and workplace/school violence
The members of a threat assessment team in a business include corporate and department management, including human resources. In a school district it includes district and school administrators, counselors, teachers, and school health personnel. As in Lincoln, NE, local law enforcement may also be represented.
Members of a church's threat assessment team should be pastors, ministry leaders, and the church safety director. If certain professionals are in the congregation - for example, a social worker, a clinical psychologist, or a law enforcement officer - one or more of them may be included.
A small church might not have a formal threat assessment team, but a few congregational leaders can act as one.
All threat assessment discussions are confidential. Persons not on the team should be told only what they need to know to protect the church. Even then, this should be confidential. We do not want to foster gossip, and we do not want to give bad actors any leverage.
Although the team may meet regularly, they can share information with each other apart from a meeting. Special meetings may be called to address urgent situations. The intention of the team is not to wait until a tragedy to consider warning signs.
What does a Threat Assessment Team discuss?
Persons may exhibit several things characterizing them as potential threats of disruptive behavior. The Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety identified certain behavior patterns to be discussed by a threat assessment team:
- History of violence
- Threatening behavior
- Intimidating behavior
- Increase in personal stress
- Negative personality traits
- Changes in mood or behavior 
There are several points under each of these patterns to consider. The Canadian document is geared toward preventing workplace violence, but several of the items apply to preventing violent disruptions in churches. Here is a sample of questions related to these patterns (more are listed in the training course):
History of Violence
We need personal knowledge of a subject's history of violence to answer these questions. The story in Southerland Springs might have been different if church leadership and local law enforcement had discussed what they did know about the shooter. Here are two of the four questions:
- Does the person have a fascination with incidents of violence?
- Has the person committed violent acts before?
Here is one item which should have been a red flag in Southerland Springs. I do not know if the shooter's mother-in-law shared his threatening letter with the pastor or the sheriff. If she had, then they should have taken it seriously, especially the sheriff. One thing a church can do is let members know they can confidentially inform leaders of threats made to them. If that kind of threat is brought in, encourage them to go to the police or let the church do it. Actual threats should be taken very seriously. Here are three of the five questions:
- Does the person hold a grudge against the church or someone in the church?
- Has the person made a threat (verbal or written) to hurt somebody?
- Have the threats been escalating?
Two kinds of violent disruptions are aggressive and defensive. Intimidating behavior often indicates an aggressive person. However, a defensive person may try to appear intimidating to deter a perceived threat. Out of the five questions listed, the first two are key indicators:
- Is the person argumentative or uncooperative?
- Does the person display unwarranted anger? Does the person's level of anger seem mismatched to the perceived offense?
Increase in Personal Stress
Many disruptors face increasing personal stress. Two of the four questions here are:
- Is the person struggling with controlled substances or alcohol?
- Is the person suffering from serious family or financial problems?
There are other stressors besides these.
Negative Personality Traits
Here is a deep-rooted point. Some of these negative traits may be just bad habits. On the other hand, some of these indicate or suggest personality disorders. It takes informed discretion to tell the difference. Three of the seven questions are:
- Does the person show a lack of concern for the safety or well-being of others?
- Does the person reject criticism or helpful advice?
- Does the person have a sense of entitlement?
Responsible intervention may help someone with negative personality traits. If the person at risk is cooperative, they may overcome some of these shortcomings with counseling, mentoring, and discipleship.
On the other hand, a sociopath or psychopath may appear to go along for a while just to get through the process, then turn around and retaliate or seek a more unsuspecting target. This is one reason we should be willing to share this kind of information with another church which is checking references.
Changes in Mood or Behavior
When a person's mood or behavior changes, it makes people wonder, "Why? What happened?" Some changes should make those responsible for safety and security think something is going on. The Canadian agency has eleven questions under this point. Just a few of these are:
- Has the person demonstrated extreme or bizarre behaviors?
- Does the person have any irrational beliefs or ideas?
- Does the person appear depressed?
- Has the person drastically changed his or her belief system?
- Does the person have a history of negative interpersonal relationships?
- Does the person see the church as a dysfunctional family?
As with the other points, consideration by a threat assessment team may be a blessing for the person(s) concerned if it gets them needed help.
Assessing possible threats of violence against the church is a safety & security tool churches should use. Knowing what threats we face not only enables us to prevent violence or prepare for it; it also provides us the opportunity for intervention. In some cases, this could be considered verbal de-escalation before the disruptive situation.
There Is More
The other three articles in this series on Verbal De-escalation are "Indications" (Identifying Potentially Disruptive Persons), "Calming Troubled Waters" (Non-Physical De-escalation), and "Peaceable Assembly" (Keeping a Protest Peaceable).
- Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security, Training Courses, "Deescalating Disruptive Persons" -
- Training Materials (Classroom Training) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/dealing-with-disruptive-persons-using-verbal-deescalation-training-bundle];
- Individual Training (Online) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/dealing-with-disruptive-persons-using-verbal-deescalation].
- Margaret Reist, "New social worker on LPS threat assessment team helps connect students with help," Lincoln Journal Star, February 21, 2019 [https://journalstar.com/news/local/education/new-social-worker-on-lps-threat-assessment-team-helps-connect/article_5d250a87-d11e-5235-b3ce-a0b8e48d95e5.html].
- Tina Lewis Rowe, How to Assess the Safety and Security of Your Place of Worship, Self-Published, © 2009; accessed at Montgomery County, MD on 03/07/2020 [https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/OEMHS/Resources/Files/SAT_How_To_Assess_Church_Safety_and_Security.pdf].
- Department of Homeland Security, Houses of Worship Security Practices Guide, May 2013 [https://fedweb-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/fed-91/2/Houses%2520of%2520Worship%2520Security%2520Practices%2520Guide%25207%252023%25202013.pdf].
- Kris Moloney, "Behavioral Emergencies - Dealing with people in crisis," Sheepdog Church Security, Resources [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.lpages.co/pdf-verbal-deescalation/].
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, "Violence in the workplace: Warning signs," October 6, 2014 [https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/violence_warning_signs.html].