Dealing with Disruptive Individuals

Many ministries have experienced that awkward moment when a visitor in the back of the room interrupts worship or Bible study with loud proclamations. Having uniform policies and procedures for dealing with interruptions will help to minimize the disruptive effect of such outbursts.

Often these outbursts come from an individual with mental health problems who just happens to be in your church that day.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine whether an interruption is benign or a calculated disruption.

Having a uniform set of policies and procedures for dealing with any interruption will help to minimize the disruptive effect of such outbursts. Your policies and procedures should focus on three things: being prepared, forming a screen, and calling the police.

Be Prepared

When dealing with a disruptive individual, the first contact is the most important. For this reason, ministry workers need to be prepared to handle these situations appropriately.

Train greeters. Ushers or greeters are the most likely volunteers to confront a disruptive individual. Whether they encounter the individual in the foyer or respond to a disruption in the sanctuary, your ushers and greeters should be trained to minimize the disruption and any potential liability.

Prepare security team. If the church has a security team, team members should be trained how to interact with a disruptive individual as part of their overall team training. Training drills should include two scenarios: individuals just entering the building and individuals already in the sanctuary.

Form a Screen

The chief objective of anyone responding to a disruptive individual should be to form a visual barrier between that individual and the rest of the congregation. This barrier will be used to direct the individual to a more appropriate place for resolving the underlying problem. In doing so, ministry workers should avoid physical contact as much as possible.

Deter entry. If the disruptive individual has not entered the sanctuary, ministry workers should attempt to prevent that entry. Simply standing in the way can often present enough of a physical barrier to help redirect the individual in the desired direction. Talking to the individual and offering to go to a specific location so you can speak more privately may also be helpful. Be sure to direct the individual to a place where at least two workers will be present.

Remove from sanctuary. If disruptive individuals are already in the sanctuary, the task of calming them down and directing them out of the sanctuary is far more difficult. There are a number of techniques professionals use to accomplish this. Asking local law enforcement for assistance in training workers to respond to this type of threat is a great starting point. In any event, ministry workers should always try to avoid physical contact. It’s better to use calm verbal guidance to direct individuals to a more appropriate place to hold a conversation.

Call the Police

Ministry workers should also be trained to call police as soon as they believe someone’s physical safety is threatened or that physical contact is inevitable. Law enforcement officers are trained in proper techniques and given the appropriate legal authority to handle these situations. In the case of mentally unstable individuals, most jurisdictions have some form of “health and welfare” response in which police are allowed to remove such people and take them to a local hospital for evaluation.

From a risk control perspective, calling law enforcement solves many problems. The visible presence of law enforcement often helps to calm a disruptive individual. Also, the officer’s actions won’t be attributed to the church if a disruptive individual is looking for a legal fight. Relying on the training and experience of local law enforcement will rarely be a bad thing for a ministry dealing with a disruption.

Consider Purposeful Disruptions

Some protesters choose not to make their point as a crowd in a public space. Rather, they prefer to infiltrate your organization as normal guests and then erupt in a disruptive outburst on a cue or at a pre-arranged time. If this happens, it’s best for your ushers or security team members to respond to each disruptive person individually. If you do not have enough manpower to address all of the disruptive people simultaneously, deal with the most disruptive individual first and work your way toward the least disruptive. Once the disruption is removed, allow police to respond and determine what other actions to take.

Don’t Be Afraid

There are a number of reasons why ministry workers shouldn't be afraid to confront a disruptive individual. The most important reason is to avoid projecting fear. If the upset person can sense fear in those responding, it may escalate an episode rather than calm it down.

Remember ministry focus. Sometimes, a disruptive individual may be calmed simply by receiving a listening ear. In one instance, a security team encountered a visibly angry man who’d been pacing the church campus between services. The volunteer approached him and said, “You look like you’re having a bad day.” At that, the man burst into tears. He shared his problems with the volunteer and eventually became a member of the church.

The law's on your side. A final reason to be confident is that churches are private property owners and are allowed to extend or withdraw their invitation to enter their premises as they see fit. Case law supports the notion that churches are not required to allow everyone on their property simply because their ministries are open to the public.