Many of Washington's churches have become the targets of an unprecedented number of burglaries, robberies and other crimes to which houses of worship long seemed immune. Clergy and church workers are also facing an increasing amount of unpredictable, sometimes violent, behavior by frustrated, destitute street people who come to them for aid.

Apprehensive and fearful because of the recent increase in crime and violence, church leaders say they are installing bars and alarm systems and hiring guards.

But the ministers say they are uncomfortable with the notion that even the church must bar its windows and lock its doors.

"I think it's the times we are in: people are getting more desperate, there's more homelessness, more unemployment, more despair," said the Rev. Ernest Gibson, executive director of the Greater Washington Council of Churches.

"I don't think churches are being targeted because of some antagonism toward religion; I think it's the worsening of economic conditions, and how it affects the poor and deprived element of the city," he said.

"There is no question that churches are vulnerable," said the Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church at 14th Street NW and Thomas Circle. Steinbruck occasionally has to bodily remove inebriated or disturbed persons from the church although he usually relies on "gentle persuasion," a firm touch and his 220-pound presence.

Steinbruck's wife, Erna, who operates a day center for homeless women in the basement of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW, said the fear some feel is based on "the potential (for violence) that is always there" in working with street people. She recalled a time when a mentally imbalanced woman shot at, but didn't harm, a center volunteer at close enough range to leave powder burns on her clothing.

"Some of them really scare me. . . . A lot of them carry some kind of weapon, a little knife or whatever, (and) when you are out on the street, maybe they feel it is a deterrent," Erna Steinbruck said.

In the basement of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, a woman known for hearing imaginary voices was sitting quietly watching television when, without warning or provocation, she reached out and smashed the face of another woman sitting beside her with a length of pipe, Erna Steinbruck said.

The Steinbrucks are not alone in their concerns.

Steve Wilson quit his job last week, after four years as building manager at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church at 16th and Newton streets NW, because of growing violence in the church. He said he has been scalded with hot water and slugged with a coffee pot while trying to keep a destitute man out of the senior citizens' meal line. In another incident, in which he interrupted an assault on an old man in the church's men's room, he was slashed at by a man with a razor blade in each hand.

He believes churches are "unprepared to deal with desperate, hungry people."

While violence has been increasing, church members say crime has risen as well. Four times since August, the Israel Metropolitan Christian Methodist Episcopal Church at 557 Randolph St. NW has been burglarized, not counting a series of purse snatchings and thefts of handbags from the kitchen area. The Rev. Raymond Williams said robbers have hidden in the church during nighttime wakes or sermons until the church was locked, and then broken out, taking office equipment and microphones.

"It's almost frightening to our members and to me to enter the church and not know what you will find," Williams said.

Members of the Johnson Memorial Baptist Church, 800 Ridge Rd. SE, have lost communion table ornaments, microphones, candelabra and other items in a recent increase of night burglaries. The Rev. Rodney Young, the pastor, said such burglaries are not new in his part of town.

"It was when the CETA programs began to be reduced--that was the inception of the increase of burglaries in churches, which says to me that the unemployment situation contributes to the cause," Young said.

The Rev. Gibson, who is also pastor of the First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church in Shaw, said the era in which "churches were more sacred and more highly respected" is past, and he advises all clergy not only to secure their buildings but also to instruct congregations on security.

"I think the attacks on church persons or property is minimal and the unusual rather than the usual," Gibson said. "(But) what has increased a great deal is attacks on churches in terms of robberies. . . . The robber gains entry to the church by some ruse while persons are there in prayer meetings or the like, and the individuals get robbed. That's the new twist."

Eight city churches have been the scene of an armed robbery since November. The rash of robberies has apparently subsided, police say, but no arrests have been made.

The Rev. Frank D. Tucker, who was robbed at gunpoint earlier this year in the First Baptist Church at Randolph Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, agreed that there is "anxiety and even vulnerability that is present when there is a community ministry and you are open to provide a service." His church runs a day-care center, a senior citizens center, Girl Scout and Boy Scout programs and other youth programs.

"It's the impact of the runaway drug scene in our community, the wasteland of moral breakdown, (and the) moral decay in our society," Tucker said. "We don't have the same kind of respect for the traditional values we have had in times past," said Tucker, who also blames the incidents on the economic policy of the Reagan administration.

"People are hungry, they are frustrated, and people who would not ordinarily have done things like this are becoming more desperate to deal with their personal dilemmas, whether drug sickness or the starvation of their families," Tucker said.

Many churches have installed elaborate alarm systems, electronic surveillance equipment, locks and window bars or hired security guards to protect their members and property.

All Souls' Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets NW lost typewriters, film projectors and other equipment to robberies in the past year. Now the church has installed an alarm system that tracks the location of any intruder inside the labyrinthine structure, and the Sunday collections are taken by escorted ushers directly to a cage room, like a walk-in safe, said church administrator Patrick Dixon.

"It seems like black-on-black crime," said Williams, pastor of Israel Metropolitan church. "Black folk know black churches. They know when we say praise God from whom all blessings flow, we leave the money up at the altar." Williams said he has also seen a recent "evil streak" in which vandals or robbers paint profanity on inner walls and drop the paint cans in the church.

The recent rise in violence and crime has thrown some clergymen into self-analysis and reexamination of their mission, while others believe churches should concentrate on protecting their members and property.

"It might be we aren't really the caring community we ought to be," Williams said.

"We're not willing to give in to the siege mentality and become a quivering convocation and therefore lose our sense of care and love for the community," said the Rev. Timothy Dissmeyer of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, where, even on bright sunny Sunday mornings, church members have been victims of purse snatchings and vandals have smashed a "priceless" stained glass window. But "it's a very fine line" between cowering and protecting the church, he added.

Church council director and pastor Gibson says, "Everyone feels there is a need, and security is a part of our way of life in these days, especially in areas where robberies, break-ins and anti-social behavior are part of the life scene."

Even some churches untouched by the attacks are affected, as their members react with wariness and apprehension. Many ministers say they have had to take security measures that seem antithetical to the churches' mission.

"There is just marked fear, especially among the senior citizens," said the Rev. Robert L. Pruitt, pastor of Metropolitan AME Church, 15th and M streets NW. Although Metropolitan seems protected by its proximity to the Soviet embassy and other large institutions, Pruitt said, its evening programs are poorly attended because members are afraid to come out after dark. He has rescheduled evening Lenten services to noon.

Two weeks ago, the Mount Vernon Place Church started a new procedure for handling its Sunday collections: ushers now pass the plates "in view of 400 people" through a special door leading from the auditorium into a treasurer's office, which is protected by an alarm system.

Tucker's church, First Baptist, has installed an extensive security system to protect the 1,800-member congregation as well as participants in the day-care and senior citizen programs, Tucker said. Elderly members are now provided transportation from their homes to the church.

Williams said Israel Metropolitan first hired a security guard, then replaced him with iron bars, and gates on all the entrances.

He also said he has given up the long nighttime hours he used to spend in prayer at the church, and he makes sure he locks himself in his office. In general, Williams said, he is "more prayerful and very careful."

The Rev. Jack Woodard, rector of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, stands 6-foot-6-inches tall. Nevertheless, he has begun to keep a police stick in his desk drawer. The church's building manager and security guard are similarly equipped.

On a recent rain-drenched afternoon, a man--just out of jail, smelly, hungry and apparently demented--entered Woodard's office, and in desperation told him of a "red devil sitting on my shoulder," urging him to do violent things.

It was but one example of the growing nervousness Woodard said he feels from the almost daily visits from frustrated, needy people, many of them with apparent psychiatric problems.

Yet Woodard and many other ministers insist that the church will not shirk its responsibilities to its members or the destitute.

"One thing we feel very strongly about here at St. Stephen's and that is that we will not close our doors to street people. We will continue to be the kind of church we want to be. Vulnerability is part of the ministry," said Woodard.

"St. Stephen's is here to help anybody who comes in peace," he continued, adding that the church would not hesitate to call the police in cases of violence or crime. "We love people, but we are not pigeons."