Several weeks several weeks ago, I was asked to evaluate a proposed self-defense program that was to be used by a number of local church security teams. I was asked to do this because in my previous business career I often helped develop or evaluated training programs.

The program that they were considering focused on both striking and grappling (judo, Brazilian jujitsu, etc.). The group also wanted to discuss training with collapsible batons as part of the proposed program.
I told the individuals that I strongly recommended against the program.

Initially, they were shocked and felt that perhaps I didn’t understand the content of the program, and the value the training would provide to their team members.

They also suggested that perhaps I didn’t understand the value of martial arts training in general and how it could help their security team members. I made them aware that I had been co-captain of my college karate team (we took the state championship). I also took a smattering of both judo and jujitsu. And, I certainly agree that self-defense training can be valuable for individuals and for church security team members.
At this point, they inquired how I could possibly feel that the training was inappropriate.

My explanation was something they had totally overlooked. I reminded them that they chose most of their security team members from senior members of their church congregations (often church leaders, deacons, etc.). At that time, I did not have the exact information, but I told them that I would guess that their average church security team member was in his 70s.

Quite frankly, the physical demands of a training program that required throwing each other down on the ground, and exchanging punches and kicks, was not something that was appropriate for individuals in their 70s. Note: the individuals considering this training program immediately agreed with my position and dropped the proposed program.

I’ve often heard church leaders and security team leaders say that they prefer current police, sheriff’s officers or individuals with significant military training to be part of the security teams. However, often there aren’t enough of these individuals in many church congregations to meet the security needs. So, many of the church security team members are older members of the church community.

The issue of appropriate training for security team members often overlooks the physical abilities of older individuals. And, the reality is that many safety/security team members are in fact older and less physically capable.

The issue of older security team members also affects the possible range of responses to violence or aggression. When a police officer is faced with a situation that requires the use of force by the officer, he or she is expected to use the minimal amount of force necessary.

U.S. Department of Justice lists five different levels of force:

  1. Presence
  2. Verbal
  3. Empty-Hand Control
  4. Less Lethal Methods
  5. Lethal Force

Quite often a police officer might choose to use an empty hand control technique (pain compliance techniques, carotid restraint, etc.) to control or stop a suspect. However, a church security team member in his 70s is unlikely to be successful with these techniques.

In those situations where older security team members are trying to protect church members, de-escalation techniques are likely to be the first appropriate choices. However, many of the nonlethal restraint/control techniques are totally inappropriate for use by these older individuals. This means that many older church security team members don’t have the same potential range of responses to threats of violence. They may well be faced with the need to rapidly escalate (to include lethal options) when trying to protect themselves or church members. This need for rapid escalation is because they are not physically capable of using many of the nonlethal physical restraint techniques.

Of course, many individuals might suggest other nonlethal options that are available including: pepper spray (oleoresin capsaicin), tasers, stun guns, or batons. However, all of these have limitations – particularly for older security team members, namely:

  • Pepper spray doesn’t always work,
  • Tasers are very expensive and require significant training,
  • Stun guns and batons require significant skill and speed to be effective (difficult for older individuals).

There is also the concern that the above nonlethal options could be taken from the older security team members and used against him.

Frankly, after speaking with dozens of church security team members, none of these options are recommended or used in their houses of worship. This means that these older church security team members often feel that they would need to quickly escalate the use of force up to lethal levels of force to stop an aggressive individual.

If I were asked for my opinion, I would recommend the church security members carry pepper spray (or bear spray). If that doesn’t work, they still have the option of escalating force, as this may allow for a less lethal option.

In our local area, quite a number of churches require/expect security team members to carry firearms. Additionally, a number of these churches require a demonstration of proficiency with the firearm and recurring training (shooting sessions). So, the churches and the team members themselves realize that they are not capable of many less lethal levels of force (like restraint techniques, grappling, etc.). So, these older individuals may not be able to use some of the nonlethal force options (Empty-Hand Control techniques) against aggressive individuals. This means the older church security team members have to be prepared to use lethal force more quickly than younger (more physically capable) team members.

This of course, presents a number of liability issues for these older security team members and their houses of worship. More and more churches in our area are recommending that individual security team members have their own liability insurance, and the churches are carrying liability insurance to cover the actions of their security team members.

Please don’t consider this a condemnation against older security team members. While these older team members may not be as physically fit, they often have characteristics that make them extremely desirable as team members. Older security team members often bring a maturity, a sense of responsibility, a strong work ethic and a desire for service (to protect their church) that makes them extremely valuable.

I took some time and tried to consider the top three individuals I would want by my side, if faced with a lethal force situation. The youngest of these individuals is 68 years old the second individual is 72 years old and the third individual just turned 80 years old. One of them is a former police officer, one is a former military special operator, and the remaining individual grew up in a family where shooting or hunting were practiced.
Because of their physical limitations, these older individuals are more likely to rely on the use of verbal/de-escalation techniques. Their maturity may prevent many situations from developing into situations where physical force (violence) might be necessary.

However, if lethal violence were required, older individuals have proven themselves successful. The two most famous individuals that stopped church violence are 71-year-old Jack Wilson (West Freeway Church of Christ on December 29, 2019, in White Settlement, Texas) and Stephen Willeford, age 55 (at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5, 2017). Additionally, it is worth noting that the selection process for many churches security groups might well have excluded these two individuals.

When churches or training groups are considering training programs for security teams, they need to take into account the physical limitations of the team members. A training program for a group of physically fit, 25-year-old individuals is likely to be very different from a training program for a group of 70+ year-old individuals. However, both of these groups can be extremely valuable in helping to ensure the safety and security of our local faith-based institutions.

JWR Adds: I concur that less-than-lethal weapons should be available to security teams, in addition to firearms, in most situations. In 1962, Abraham Kaplan, a Professor of Philosophy at UCLA famously said:  “Give a boy a hammer and everything he meets has to be pounded.”  This is often paraphrased as: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”