Gentle Response De-Escalation Training for Church Security Teams

Gentle Response is the organization founded by John Riley, a retired police officer and certified crisis intervention specialist with the National Anger Management Association. He and his team travel all over the United States conducting Conflict De-escalation Training seminars.

SemperVerus attended this excellent seminar, held in Immanuel Church, Holland, Michigan, May 14, 2023. With Mr. Riley’s permission, here are notes we took during that seminar and scenario training:

•   “A gentle response defuses anger” Proverbs 15:1 (MSG)

•   Conflict de-escalation: lowering the intensity of an agitated person to minimize a potentially volatile situation from becoming a critical violent incident.

[ Read the SemperVerus article, A Prayer for Church Security Team Members ]

•   Peacemaking and de-escalating people’s anger is the goal, while staying alert to your own personal and public safety. When overwhelmed, stay safe and be an expert witness.

•   Mindset Priority: Each church security team member must have a “ministry mindset” — Every contact (even eye contact) is a ministry opportunity to represent the mission of the church. Don’t let your actions be heavy-handed and damage that mission.

•   Make contact with people as they arrive. Show a willingness to be friendly.

[ Read the SemperVerus article, Biblical Lessons to Learn De-Escalating Skills ]

•   Expect broken people to come to church. Broken people come in all attire (dressed up as well as slovenly). Be slow to judge (or disregard) threat levels on merely observing a person’s clothing (or age or social status, etc.).

•   Conflict de-escalation begins BEFORE a single word is spoken. Ask yourself, “Does the person perceive ME as a threat to HIM?”

•   3 KEY BASIC CONCEPTS for de-escalation:

  1. Pay attention to your Body Language
  2. Tone of Voice
  3. Active Reflective Listening.

[ Read articles in the SemperVerus category of Church Security ]

•   Stay PREPARED to deal with stressful situations so that you don’t INADVERTENTLY make the situation worse. Have plans ahead of time in your mind of how to handle a variety of disruptions. Your body cannot do what your mind does not know! Develop templates for possible scenarios but adapt them in the moment as necessary.


  • Appearance (Your Body Language and Facial Expression)
  • Communication (Your Tone of Voice, What You Say, and How You Say It)
  • Engagement (How Connected You Are In The Moment — are you REALLY listening to the other person)

[ See the SemperVerus list of links to Church Security Training Resources ]

•   Research shows that 55% of human communication is through physiology and kinesiology, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% the words we use.

•   Our natural human reaction to someone getting loud and in our face it to get loud in response. Don’t do it!

•   An angry person may just need to vent. Be a reflective listener to show that you care about what he is saying.

•   Remember, your non-verbal body language may escalate a situation (e.g., arms crossed, serious look, etc.).

•   The most powerful disarming tool you have is your (appropriately timed) smile; it even warms your vocal tone. But don’t come across as condescending or sarcastic.

[ Read the SemperVerus article, Lessons in Situational Awareness from Columbo ]

•   Take a breath to give yourself a REACTIONARY GAP which gives you TIME and TIME gives you OPTIONS on how to react or respond. Use combat breathing:

  • Breathe in counting 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Stop and hold your breath counting 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Exhale counting 1, 2, 3, 4

•   Keep a distance gap; don’t stay in close proximity to the person’s fists. Extend your hands palms open waist high to signal (in a non-threatening way) to the person to stay where he is.

•   Maintain a low, calm tone of voice.

•   DON’T talk to people as if they are a child, talking “down” to them.
•   DON’T talk to people as if they are stupid.
•   DON’T talk to people as if they are supposed to be afraid of you.

[ Read the SemperVerus article, Church Security Book Review: A Gentle Response ]

•   3 elements to staying calm:

  • Take a breath (combat breathing)
  • Be confident
  • Positive self-talk

•   Remember QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally. Don’t get personally offended by the person’s actions or words. Don’t react to what they say. Don’t let your pride or ego suck you down. Don’t be offended by someone not respecting your self-perceived authority as a security team member. Don’t become impatient, offended, angry, antagonistic, disrespectful, or demeaning.

•   It’s when YOU start getting frustrated and impatient and offended that you risk saying or doing something that will escalate the situation.

•   Perhaps the person is HANGRY. When appropriate, offer water or food to help change the subject.

•   Always respect the person.

•   Don’t finger point.

•   Stay in control of yourself.

•   Situations are dynamic and fluid; stay flexible to adapt.

•   Act slowly (reactionary gap) and assess insightfully. Don’t let your default be “hands-on.” Show self-discipline, restraint, and spiritual maturity. Be an active listener. Let time happen to allow the person to calm down. Invite them to join you in a quiet corner.

•   Work as a team. Develop hand and arm signals (e.g., pulling on your ear while you’re talking to the disruptive person to signal your partner to call 911; or the phrase that you say to your partner “Pastor Clark would like to talk with you” to help your partner extricate himself from a person who only wants to argue; etc.).

•   When using your phone to video record, don’t hold it directly in front of you into the face of the person (which can antagonize the person). Hold it casually in your hand down at your side, even upside down.

•   Think in terms of safety. For example, if a disruptive person stands up during the service and he won’t allow you to evacuate him from the auditorium, evacuate the pews surrounding the person.


  • Calm down.
  • I’m not going to tell you again.
  • Because I said so.
  • Shut up.
  • I’m going to call the police.
  • Can I talk now?
  • What’s your problem?


  • Excuse me, may I talk with you?
  • What can I do to help?
  • Please speak slowly, I want to help.
  • What is the matter?

•   All people want to be treated with dignity and respect.
•   All people want to be asked rather than being told to do something.
•   All people want to be told why they are being asked to do something.
•   All people want to be given options rather than threats.
•   All people want a second chance.

•   Work to establish a connection and rapport with the disruptor.

•   A large part of de-escalating a situation is knowing when you’re not helping the situation. It’s OK to get out of the way and let your partner take over (especially if the angry person doesn’t like you for whatever reason).

•   Dealing with someone who is very angry or who is having a mental breakdown is scary. You’re going to have an adrenaline rush and you will be full of anxiety.

•   There is no magic pill. Sometimes nothing you say or do will make a difference with someone’s anger, aggression, mental issues, or agenda. Calling 911 is always an option.


Contact Gentle Response to schedule a Conflict De-escalation Training seminar for your own team.

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