Risky Business

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.

sketch of my office layout

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.”

He left.

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?

17 thoughts on “Risky Business”

    1. The real horror stories I hear about pastors being violently attacked or killed seem to happen to male pastors, while the assaults and sexual assaults seem to happen to female pastors. I’m sure there are crossovers in both directions, and we all definitely need to be careful regardless.

  1. Glad you and Will are safe. As far as precautions in the workplace go, being aware and not letting down my guard are all I have. When I did have an office, I had things situated so that I faced the door – but there was only one door. At least I could see them coming.

    1. thanks. yeah, a lot of offices are one-way in and out spaces, and the challenge is to find a way to give a guest a sense of not being trapped and still leave yourself the proximity to the door.

  2. I am so sorry you had to experience this, but thank you so much for sharing. I recall learning in ethics class that male pastors are more likely to abuse and female pastors are more likely to be abused. I have certainly thought through first escape, but never considered a second — love the two door idea. Were you able to file information on this man (name, address, etc.) in your report?

    1. I filed a detailed description (he actually told me during the conversation that he was 5’9″ and 220, although I’d say he was about 5’8″ because I am 5’9″ and was taller), and his first name. He did not give me a last name, and he had no address. They took my statement, even though no crime had technically been committed, since he did leave when I asked him to. They also said that they were familiar with the person I described (helps to be in a pretty small town), and they’d keep an eye out for him. If he comes again or approaches me again, I can file for a no trespass and/or restraining order.

  3. From my days of driving around remote communities with tens of thousands of dollars of cash in my front seat, I have a few more precautions.

    Wear strong shoes – not just sensible heels that fit well and allow you to run, but shoes that will allow you to stomp and kick without hurting yourself.

    Wear jackets that do not in any way restrict your shoulder movement – *especially* as you’re responsible for carrying my nephew in those situations.

    The hardest thing I’ve been working on since moving to the city is not smiling at strangers – 4 put of 5 times, greeting a stranger on the street in passing without stopping yields unwelcome advances — either verbal or physical, some of which you’re aware of. You can’t do that given your job, but you can make yourself more “professionally” warm rather than personally so. We should talk about this.

    Also, make that second door an absolute egress. Rehang the door so it opens out – so that you can ram through it, if necessary. Remove anything from that area or the hallway beyond that muffles sound, and make it a point to leave the door very slightly ajar, rather than tightly closed. And if you install a panic button, place it out of sight so you can hit it with a knee or foot if necessary.

    1. Yes my love! I own very few pair of non-sensible shoes, and those aren’t really church shoes anyway. I also don’t have far to run, so the focus is kicking and stomping. If he hadn’t let go of me, my next move was the good old fashioned knee to the groin. Like I said, he was bigger, but slower, and I think I could have laid him out pretty quickly. There was chatter and noise in the next room, but they’d have heard me yell, and I know to yell something clear like “help in the pastor’s office!”
      The privacy issue makes leaving a door ajar a problem. As is, you can hear through the doors pretty easily, and I do have conversations, including the first half of this one, that are confidential and should not be overheard. Obviously, safety takes priority over privacy, but they are held in tension.

  4. Glad you are safe Becca. What an experience on top of all you’ve been through this year! In years of working with many folks in various situations I can suggest the following: always listen to your intuition–you are probably picking up nonverbal cues; always keep yourself between the client/parishioner and the door; when in doubt, as in with a person unknown to you, always always leave the door ajar with someone out there. God love you!

    1. Yes, thank you. It should be noted that my intuition did tell me this was not a stable person. As he told me about his life’s struggles, I saw no reason why he should be a stable person. What is really sad is that he needs psychological help and medication, and he has no way to obtain it. What will most likely happen is that he will assault someone severely and get arrested, and then he can be treated in prison. It’s sad that someone will get hurt so that this young man can get the treatment he needs (and knows he needs) but can’t afford.

      1. Yes of course you would be tuned in to the person’s feeling state, being as sensitive as you are! Mental health care continues to deteriorate nationally. And yes he will probably wind up in the prison system. I think you are connected to NAMI so are very aware of this issue. Our prisons are becoming mental health treatment facilities, since mental health is underfunded. In the meantime stay safe Becca, and may God’s love continue to be with you and yours.

  5. I am glad you are OK. I would go with pepper spray rather than Tasers. Since you are in the north, coats and garments can be heavy and can be hard to penetrate with a taser and reduce their effect. Kimber America makes a couple nice pepper blasters that can have two shots. This gives you an extra shot should you miss or have other isues. You can go to your local gun shop with your pepper blaster, explain to them you want a holster to put it in and mount it under your desk, and they should help you out. (You may wish to mention to them that you are a preacher and this is going in a church so they don’t try to sell you a firearm unless you are looking for a lethal option.) For lethal options, they have fingerprint activated safes that can mount under a desk. That being said, cowboys were always told not to take their guns to church) Once you get a holster, mount it up under your desk. It will be out of site to every one else but will provide you with easy access to it should you find yourself in an undesireable situation. It is a great non lethal option. I have included websites for their two systems.
    Item 1: http://www.kimberamerica.com/shop/product.php?xProd=2
    Item 2

    Remember to practice pulling it out from a seated position and aimig it so that you become comfortable with the process.

  6. In regards to a panic button. If your church has an alarm system that is monitored by an alarm company such as ADT, they can probably install a panic pull switch under your desk or where ever you would like it placed for $100 or less. (Always make it easily accessible for you but out of site of those in your office) If there is not a system already present, the church can purchase a pull switch, some wires, and an alarm off the internet. (Google it:)) If doing this, keep in mind that if there is no one at the church to hear the alarm, then there is no help for you. Also, devlop a task or plan and ensure several know it. Address issues like do we call the police and do we charge into your office, etc and practice the procedures.

  7. Last comment. The safest thing for your child is not to have him in the room when this is taking place. If that is not an option, place your child behind you so that the bad guy(s) hav to go through you to get to the child. It also prevents the bad guy from hiding behind the child if you hae to engage him/her with force. In the buisiness world, we go as far to “hide” all family pictures in the office before we address behavioral or termination issues.

    1. Thanks for all your suggestions, Allen. Those are very helpful. The church is working on some security/alarm options right now, and have also been pointed in the directions you mention about linking the alarm to the ADT system.
      M son will be going to daycare in the fall, so I just need some temporary measures to keep him and I safe. While I love having him with me, and very much appreciate working in a space where that is feasible, it is actually safer for both him and I if he’s in a day care environment when something like this happens. However, gotta get through the summer financially, and then pad child care will be an option! In the mean time, I’m getting some changes made to my office that should help.

      Thanks again for your support and your expertise!

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