This past Sunday morning I arrived to preach at a First Baptist Church in rural Alabama. As I pulled in the parking lot I noticed two men sitting on a curb. I got out of my car and spoke to them as I made my way to the pastor’s office to go over the details of the morning service. The pastor told me that the two men were picked up by the local police and spent the previous night in jail for public intoxication. They were released early Sunday morning and walked down the street to the First Baptist Church. They had been hitchhiking from up north and through a series of events found themselves sitting in the church parking lot before any members arrived. The pastor shared with me how they were carrying duffel bags which caused obvious anxiety to some of the members. The pastor arrived that morning, greeted them warmly and simply asked if he could check their bags before allowing them to attend worship. There were no issues and they politely sat in the service as I preached. The pastor bought them lunch and they were on their way. The thought of church security was on my mind as I drove home thinking about the events of that morning. As I was deep in my thoughts about what could have been a dangerous situation, the news came across the radio regarding FBC Sutherland Springs, TX. I couldn’t help but think that similar events could easily have happened at several hundred churches in Alabama that morning, including the one I had just preached.
The events of Sunday morning in a small Texas town was nothing short of pure evil. I can hardly bring it to my mind without feeling emotionally distressed and physically sick. We should spend adequate time this week praying for pastor Frank Pomeroy, his wife and surviving church members as they grieve and begin the process of putting their lives back together. I am thankful for the immediate action of the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas and the SBC national leaders like Frank Page and Steve Gaines. The world has been watching and Southern Baptists have shined as they have given empathetic prayerful support to this church and town.
I truly believe that Sunday’s events in Texas fundamentally changed church security forever. What 9/11/01 was to air travel, 11/5/17 will be to church security.
It changes the conversations regarding church security protocol. No matter the size of the church, denomination, location or affiliations most every church is meeting this week to review security measures. We must ask the tough questions and find sufficient answers to make sure that our churches are as well prepared as possible. Sunday’s events also point to the fact that we are doing ministry in a dangerous place. There are risks that exceed our standard approach to church security. Church security can no longer be one person standing in the parking lot keeping a watch.
This week I spoke with church security expert Doug Wilson of Counter Threat Group for a Q&A that I hope will of great assistance as churches meet to discuss new security measures.
How is Church Security changing in light of the recent events of Charleston and Sutherland Springs? I think Charleston and more recently Sutherland Springs, Texas provided a wake-up call on how vulnerable churches are to acts of violence whether it’s an active shooter or an act of terrorism. Churches represent the softest of the soft targets with many avenues of entry into the facility and sanctuary/worship center. The historic mindset of church staff and members is to be welcoming to all. Unfortunately times have changed. With church violence incidents trending upward, a welcoming spirit has to be combined with discernment, especially with visitors. All church members need be aware of people who come into the church that look out of place or perhaps unknown people who are noticed walking around the church property. There needs to be a plan in place for reporting suspicious activity. I cannot emphasize this enough.
What connections need to be made between the local church and local law enforcement? We strongly suggest that all churches form relationships with their local law enforcement and keep open lines of communication on a consistent basis. Churches should never refrain from contacting law enforcement when there is concern about suspicious individuals who may appear at the church. Many churches now hire off duty police officers to help with traffic or be on hand during high traffic times. A police car parked at the church provides good a deterrence. We also recommend that all churches, regardless of size, get a vulnerability assessment (VA) of the church and form a safety team to man entrance areas and have someone walking the premises, especially on Sundays. Retired military and law enforcement are ideal members for safety teams. It was clear from the tragic event this past Sunday, that there was not a plan in place to thwart the attacker. There are measures that all churches can implement to reduce the risk of a violent scenario, and or thwart it if and when one occurs.
What does a local church need to know regarding state and local laws in relation to church security? Churches, based on the state where they reside, need to understand the laws regarding firearms. We suggest that in today’s environment, qualified and trained individuals within a church carry concealed weapons. If someone in the Texas church had a weapon Sunday, the loss of 26 lives could have been reduced or prevented once the gunman entered the church. Again, the thought of a violent event in a church is not a mindset that most pastors, staff or members have, but that has got to change.
In Matthew 10:16 Jesus sent his disciples out with this command, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” Churches need to be warm and welcoming to guests, but at the same time aware of threats. What are some things that security volunteers need to be mindful of when a visitor walks on to the church grounds this Sunday? The best thing anyone within a church can do when a visitor is spotted is to welcome them. Whether it’s the staff, ushers or regular church members, approach the person, look them in the eye, welcome them and ask if you can help them. This accomplishes several things: first, If they are a legitimate visitor, it helps them feel welcome. Second, If they are there for other reasons, then they know they have been noticed. Third, If they wish to do harm, their demeanor will typically give them away. They won’t want help; they won’t make eye contact, they will typically appear nervous or disheveled and they won’t be conversant. At this point, this is when the first level of church security (safety team or local law enforcement) should be contacted out of caution. It is also important that the suspicious visitor remain within sight of a church representative until a determination can be made. If you can get them to fill out a visitors card and try to engage in a conversation, this is a good thing to do while you are waiting for additional help.
For more information on church security I recommend churches contact the Counter Threat Group. CTG does Vulnerability Assessments (VA) for places of worship and works with churches on implementing safety teams. They utilize a 10 point checklist that includes walking the church property, looking at the children’s areas, parking lot security, security camera coverage if applicable, ways of access to the building and sanctuary, interviewing key staff about their concerns, and most importantly, work with churches on implementing a safety team. Their report is written in great detail with recommendations on improving highlighted safety concerns.
For more information on Counter Threat Group: https://www.counterthreatgrp.com/