Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church - Marshfield, WI

Emergency Response

What Can Worshippers Do in Case of a Violent Attack?

What would you do if someone entered your church and began shooting? Hit the floor? Run? Try to reach your children? How quickly could you devise a plan for survival? “Your first option is to escape,” according to John Nicoletti, a security consultant who has co-written books on preventing workplace and school violence. Nicoletti, a police psychologist for more than 25 years, was on the front lines of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. Afterwards, he interviewed students, consulted authorities, and reviewed scores of other school shootings to develop an overview of school violence in America.

His research revealed that people threatened by a potential killer have five options for survival.  Here they are in order of importance.  (For example, the very first step is to try and get away.  While it seems obvious, having these memorized is important in high pressure and unexpected situations.)

  1. Getting Away. Escaping from someone who may be trying to kill you generally produces the best survival rate, he said, but people don’t instinctively realize this.
    • Don't Rely on Instinct. “You have to know that ahead of time, or the brain will resort to fight or flight,” Nicoletti advised. He noted that several students killed during the Virginia Tech shooting April 16, 2007, simply froze when confronted by a student wielding a gun. “If you rely on instinct, it’s not going to help you,” he said.
    • Educate Your Congregation. That’s why churches need to tell congregations how to respond to violent situations and outline the best means of escape. Every time you fly on a commercial airline, you’re reminded about safety procedures and how to find the nearest exit, Nicoletti said. Very few churches do the same. “If an incident goes down, pandemonium will ensue,” he said, “because people don’t know what to do.”
  2. Locking Down. The second option is to lock and barricade doors, then move away from them to avoid gunfire. The Virginia Tech killer shot through closed doors, but he didn’t take the time to kick doors in. He moved on to easier targets, Nicoletti said. Locking down may be tougher for churches than for elementary schools, because many don’t have rooms with locks on them, he said. Ideally, the children’s area should be secured by a single set of solid doors that teachers could quickly lock, protecting everyone inside.  (Please note, there are two exits in the front of the church, on either side of the altar, they also both lead to rooms that can be locked, especially my office and the choir room.)
  3. Concealment. If the first two options aren’t possible, fall to the floor and take cover under pews, chairs, or other objects. “Hide under stuff,” Nicoletti suggested. “They tend to look for vertical people more so than horizontal people.”
  4. Playing Dead. This is one of the more difficult options. It requires people to have already been shot, and you have to really look dead, Nicoletti said. This isn’t easy when you’re battling hysteria.
  5. Confronting the Attacker. This is your last resort. It should not be attempted unless all hope is lost, Nicoletti said. While highly controversial, active resistance is what halted a Springfield,  Oregon, school shooting in 1998, he said. 


While such violent attacks are rare, we do need to be cautious of developing a false sense of security.  We are currently developing carefully constructed policies for church safety, and this is just one area, but an important one.  We will do our best to provide a safe environment while maintaining a welcoming atmosphere. This is not a small task, but most of all, we realize that we are “in the world and not of it,” and we trust in God to keep us safe not only for this life, but the life to come.  May God bless and keep you in all areas of your life, and I pray that your summer is going well so far!  I’m looking forward to seeing you in church and also to the special events coming up that I will be taking part in, including the National Youth Gathering and the SALT mission trip!

In Christ’s love,
Pastor Daryn
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