Challenging Attendees

How does the church deal with people whose behaviour presents a challenge - to the running of services and the safety of others? We need to be wise in managing risk but also loving. This article offers a framework for managing and reducing risk, enabling the love of Jesus to reach people who would otherwise be excluded. "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." Matthew 10v16 NIV

Mental Illness usually gets into the press because of violence. Whilst only 5 of the 600 homicides in the UK last year were by people with mental illness, most people seem to view the mental ill as violent, unpredictable and to be avoided.

Churches don't have this luxury. People with violent pasts come to the church and 'trouble' is sometimes caused. The church is also called to love everybody as Jesus does. It is not possible to turn a blind eye and exclude anyone who poses the slightest risk, but neither does the church need to be naive. The world does contain 'wolves', so we need to be as shrewd as snakes with risk management yet seem as innocent as doves when dealing with people who are often lonely and in great need of help.

Prediction or Management?

In an ideal world, we would be able to predict every incidence of violence, but two things prevent this. First, the assessment tools available are not sufficiently accurate and, second, the events themselves are rare.

In situations where violent events are more common, such as prisons, it is possible to use statistical (or actuarial) methods to predict a percentage risk for a given person. In the church, however, there are not enough 'risky' people for this to be useful.

Another approach is to rely on 'hunch' or unaided assessment. This isn?t very reliable. It is also open to abuse because the person assessing may be taking decisions based on fear or incomplete knowledge. In the Old Testament, we see how rigorous people were in managing accusations - surely the standard for the church has to be higher.

Instead, 'structured judgement' is a better approach, where assessments are made according to a number of key criteria. Because it is structured, it should be possible for different people to consider the same case and get the same 'answer' - hence it is fairer. It also leads nicely to risk management: the next stage.

The aim of any risk management process is to highlight non-obvious situations (the obvious ones are easy), to only pick up the most serious ones (we are all risky at some level), and then to provide an individual strategy to reduce risk.

Risk Management as Process

Dealing with risk is not about coming up with a percentage figure and saying this person is X% likely to cause trouble. Instead, it should lead to an action plan to reduce the level of risk. If you like, this is a sort of discipleship for risky people - and in discipleship you don?t want to know the level of a person?s maturity as much as you want to know how to help them grow.

Typical areas to cover in a risk assessment are: current symptoms of mental illness, associated behaviour (drinking, self-harm, self-neglect), contact with services, criminal record and personal circumstances (housing, stressful life events) - all these can increase risk and, more importantly, can be impacted to reduce risk.

It is best to go through the areas of : Data Collection [Finding out the relevant information from all those involved ? including near-misses], Risk Assessment [Using a comprehensive list of criteria, flag up the high risk areas], setting up a Risk Profile [This lists the risk history (with detailed offence analysis), current risk symptoms, high risk situations and particular people at risk] and then making a Management Plan [This lists steps to be taken if risk symptoms increase including who to contact. Protective factors should also be listed].

Risk is composed of static predictors (often historical) and fluid ones (housing, substance misuse, mental illness). You can't change fact like a criminal record, but typically people will score in more than one area - this prevents someone constantly being labelled because of an offence 20 years ago when their lives have now totally changed and their minds been renewed.

Typical changes in a person?s risk profile might be missing appointments, not attending church, worse self-care or drinking more. The management plan then follows on clearly from the high risk areas identified and should contain details of who the person responds to best, how to contact them and what strategies are known to work.

Data protection means that a minimum necessary amount of data can be held [DPA schedule 3.31]. Only a summary of the action plan should be available to generic security staff. Ideally, the person should consent to data being held, be involved in deciding who has access to the information and be given a copy of any decisions.

Making Links

All people in contact with mental health services (i.e., more than just their GP) will have had such a management plan done. It is the job of their 'key worker' to keep it up to date as part of something called the Care Programme Approach. It is also the job of their key worker to be aware of all 'significant others' in the person's life, so if a person is regularly involved in church, then people at the church would be able to input into the person's care as part of a team working intensively to improve their lives. This is a great opportunity for the NHS to see the church behaving responsibly and contributing to society. It also shares the burden, as the more unwell the person is the more support there will be from the NHS.

Sometimes, people will have a criminal record that they do not want to discuss in detail. This is their right at the church, but they must also understand that we have a right to protect others in the church. Police Checking should be the norm for all working with children and it can be requested for any voluntary position if deemed necessary. It should be made clear that the past can be forgiven, but there are some cases where it cannot be forgotten.

It is not humanly possible to prevent all danger, but it is usually possible to work to reduce risk, and to try to contain it where reduction is not possible.

When it goes wrong

Occasionally there will be incidents on the church campus. Security staff are trained in recognising verbal and non-verbal indicators of immediate risk and in de-escalation techniques. They should intervene to make the situations safe. ?Reasonable force- (i.e.: in proportion to the threat) is allowed in self-defence. Other than this, the police should be involved.

Christians often baulk at informing the police - or even calling them if the threat is still present. However, well documented past events can serve to improve risk management and get people improved access to services they would benefit from. Brushing it under the carpet in the name of ?Christian forgiveness? or being ?nice? rarely does anyone any favours.

The ?event? is not over until there has been a debrief of the staff involved, a discussion with the person (if still present) and a review of the management plan. For example, it may have been agreed that a person can come into the foyer if quiet, but if not then they are barred for two weeks - and this needs to be clearly communicated to the person involved and to relevant staff and enforced.

A summary of an up-to-date management plan could be to be kept with a named person or leader of the security team in an accessible but secure place. There could be a list of mentors for people who regularly cause concern, or of people who could provide specialist help with a new person.
Rob Waller, 19/11/2008
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