How should a church cope with security?

Communications Staff — March 17, 2009

In light of the shooting death of Illinois pastor Fred Winters March 8, some might ask, What’s a church to do?

Winters, pastor of First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., was preaching when a man walked down the aisle, pulled out a gun and fatally shot Winters in the chest.

Two security officers at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Winters had earned a doctor of ministry degree, offered suggestions to help other congregations stay safe.

“People go to church for a couple of real good reasons,” said Bob Perkins, director of safety and security at the Louisville, Ky., campus. “They want to know who God is and come to know God. But they also want to be safe,” which Perkins described as a subconscious matter that church leaders need to address.

While most church crimes do not involve violence or shootings, congregations should have a plan for handling an attack like the one at First Baptist Maryville, Perkins said. People who want to bring guns into a church can do so with relative ease, Perkins admitted, but noted that certain measures can reduce the risk of harm.

A security officer should sit in a strategic location in each service so that he can scan the crowd and spot anything out of the ordinary. The security officer should position himself between a potential shooter and the pulpit, Perkins said.

If someone approaches the platform unexpectedly during a service, the pastor should take cover.

“If someone out of the blue just walks up the aisle in the middle of a sermon or the middle of a service, we don’t know how to act,” Perkins said. “Somebody has to be aware that this is the potential for a problem, and they’ve got to avoid that problem. Anybody is a potential victim, and they have to be ready for these types of situations.”

All security planning must begin in deacons meetings, staff meetings and other committee meetings, Perkins said.

“There needs to be emergency planning,” he said. “How do you exit your pulpit? Where do you go? Who gets between you and the assailant? Those types of things have to be discussed.”

If a church doesn’t know where to begin its security planning, Perkins and James Sharon, Southern Seminary’s supervisor of safety and risk management, offered several suggestions. First, ask a local law enforcement agency to do a security survey and suggest an emergency plan. Most police and sheriff’s departments are happy to provide such services, they said.

A great way for churches to detect potential threats is to appoint a member to head up security. Often a police officer in the congregation is the ideal person for such a job, although other interested members can serve effectively as well, Sharon and Perkins said.

They recommended two helpful books: Ron Aguiar’s “Keeping Your Church Safe” and Jeffrey Hawkins’ “An Introduction to Security and Emergency Planning for Faith-Based Organizations.”

While security planning is important, they reminded congregations that in almost all instances, churchgoing is a safe activity.

“You’re still safe to go to church,” Sharon said. “The chances of you getting killed in a car wreck going home is 100 times greater than the chances of getting shot in church Sunday morning. Always plan, but don’t panic because there’s a report in the paper.”

Additional security steps include:

— Investigating all suspicious activity, including vandalism to church property and obscene or threatening phone calls, Perkins said.

“You want to try to detect and deter any type of threat before it gets into the physical phase,” he said. “It doesn’t depend on what size church you are, you need to be thinking about security systems. You need to be thinking about closed circuit TV and recording things that are happening.”

Cameras and security systems are affordable even for small churches, Perkins said, noting that a congregation can install a motion-sensitive closed circuit TV system for less money than they might think. Because most criminal acts are carried out by people who have previous contact with a church, cameras can deter criminals from coming back for a violent attack or burglary.

Anyone who threatens a church or spends time on the church property without attending church activities should be reported to security or law enforcement officials, Perkins said.

— Keeping a record of all incoming phone calls. A digital phone system that automatically records callers’ identity is particularly helpful, Perkins said.

“There’s a term that’s always kicked around in law enforcement: situational awareness,” Sharon added. “You need to be aware. It’s amazing, when you go back in crimes we’ve worked, how many times there’s a hint before a crime. The majority of crimes that happen, somebody had knowledge beforehand.”

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