Ministry is a wonderful vocation, a calling, a journey. It is also a job, and it has occupational hazards that are pretty well known. Stress and overeating, and caffeine addiction, perhaps. But there are some pretty obvious risks associated with being accessible to the public and trying to help those on the edge. We hear horror stories about it from time to time, but I know I at least try to brush those stories aside because I don’t want to dwell on them. We can, however, learn and prepare at least a little, and so shouldn’t totally ignore the risks.
I had my own fright this week, and some things went well, and others can go better next time.
A young man came into my office and asked to speak with me privately. He asked if he could close the door. This is not an unusual request, and the door between my office and the church office has a large window in it to provide both privacy in conversation and safety for everyone for just such occasions. He did begin sharing some pretty personal stuff, and it certainly was appropriate to close others out of that conversation.
It should be noted, however, that my 8 month old son, who was sitting in his high chair next to me as I fed him some lunch, began crying almost as soon as the young man came in. Kids are brilliant.
I assessed my visitor, as I do– consciously or subconsciously– for every person who comes into my office. Younger than me. My height, maybe. Heaver. Also a bit slower, which would be my advantage. Facial tick. Slightly slurred speech. No smell of alcohol. Brown, fast-moving eyes and minimal eye contact, making the pupils hard to estimate.
I assessed my environment, which is pretty unchanging, but set up to give me as much safety as the room affords. He was sitting in the chair across from me, between me and the primary exit (the door with a window). This is where all my guests sit, because I can see them coming, and they also need to feel safe and not cornered. Door to my right– my secondary exit– unlocked as it always is when I’m in my office, leading to a room filled with 50+ people eating a community meal. Between me and the door, Will was in his high chair, strapped in, and I was sitting behind my desk.
Our conversation focused on the young man’s life story and his needs, which I believe were totally legitimate, and some of which certainly came from some untreated medical concerns. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do to help him obtain funds for either shelter or medication that he needed; I could only offer him food and clothing and try to refer him to some other places.
And then the conversation changed. He mentioned that he had some trouble in the past with “sexual behaviors.” He followed that immediately with a couple of comments about my body.
Time to go.
I said I was sorry I couldn’t be of more help, and I wished him well, and it was time to be moving on.
He stood up, and looked out the window in the door toward the outer office. I saw what he saw register in his posture. He grew more confident. Cocky. No one was out there. We were alone.
And he knew it.
He came toward me around the desk, arms outstretched, still talking about my body. No time to unstrap the baby and run. I stood (I do have an inch or so on him), and stepped out from behind the desk toward him, placing myself between him and Will. As he moved in for an embrace of sorts, I caught his upper arms, holding him back a bit. He did get in a bit of a hug, and tried to lay his head on my chest. “Whoa,” I said, “That’s enough.” He tried to get closer and get his arms around me, but I pushed back, and broke him away. “Time to go. Don’t forget your backpack,” I said. He was still talking, apologizing and babbling, and I said again. “Good luck to you. Time to go.”
I closed the door again behind him, and locked it, and locked the other door and had myself a little freak out moment. Then I went out and called a retired clergyman in from the other room and had a freak out moment with him. And I was pretty much okay. I made some calls to alert other folks, and eventually, after consultation with my husband, filed an incident report with the police.
I am okay. Will and the church administrator and all the other people in the building are okay.
Here are the things I had working in my favor:
- a pre-planned and accessible secondary exit; I insist on keeping this open and accessible. I don’t know what I’d do in an office without a second egress. It’s not my fire escape; it’s my assault escape.
- an outer office that usually has someone in it, and a room full of people on the other side of the door, within shouting distance.
- An inch of height, and a lot of adrenaline, especially when standing in front of my baby.
- I’d thought about it.
- unbeknown to me, a canary, with a canny read of peoples’ vibes, even though he’s pre-lingual.
What I didn’t have:
- an alert strategy with the administrator in the outer office; we now have a plan in place whereby we will have phones on and at our elbows, set to text SOS at a moment’s notice. She will interrupt my meeting with a “pressing situation,” and I will do the same for her. We will not leave the offices, and certainly not without our phones.
- an alarm or panic button; the church is talking about this. Even something that makes a loud noise, whether or not it rings at the police station, would be enough to give someone like this pause.
- a taser, pepper spray, or other personal defense mechanism; I don’t think I want something like that at this time.
- testosterone; I don’t play the poor weak female card often, but I doubt this happens the same way if it’s a man in the pastor’s chair. Whether in this guy’s mind, or in the minds of our culture, the fact remains that my church is usually staffed exclusively by two young women. Strong, rugged, in your face Vermont women, but two women nonetheless. And a baby. There are those who would think of us as sitting ducks.
- a plan for what to do with Will– running away works well for me, but is impractical if I have to pause to unbuckle, disentangle, or otherwise gather my 8 month old.
We can never be prepared for all scenarios– someone armed and with murderous intent is pretty much unstoppable in any environment– but thinking out my defenses and my escape routes and the layout of the room gave me some confidence in this situation. A little brute strength didn’t hurt (thanks again, Will, for the regular bicep curls with a 20 lb weight). We want to believe the best about others, but need to be wise as serpents even if we are innocent as doves.
What precautions do you take in your workplace? What do you do to make it and/or your church a safe place for staff and visitors alike?