The headlines have been horrifying recently. It seems like every other week there is another shooting to break the spirits of America all over again.
Three of the five deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have taken place in the last 10 years on the campus of a church or school. Just a few months ago, a shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, made headlines when it broke the top five mass shootings, taking place at a small Baptist church just outside of San Antonio.
The shooting took place on the campus of First Baptist Church on a Sunday during the 11 a.m. service. The gunman shot at the outside of the building, walked inside and continued to fire into the pews of the sanctuary, killing 26 people and injuring 20 more. The victims included children as young as 18 months old.
The shooting in Sutherland Springs is the latest of at least three church campus shootings in the past three years. In June 2015, a gunman shot and killed nine church members during a prayer service at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. In September 2017, a gunman stormed the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn., fatally shooting a woman in the parking lot before entering the church sanctuary, shooting and wounding six people.
It is apparent that attacks on relatively unprotected sites, or soft targets, like places of worship are increasing. Many church campuses across the country are beginning to question the security measures they implement on their own campuses.
“It is absolutely a wake-up call regardless of where you are in security planning. Security needs to be part of every church’s function, whether it’s a church of 50 or 21,000, like Redemption,” said Travis Hayes, CFO of Redemption Church in Greenville, S.C.
Redemption started reevaluating its security policy and protocol in the wake of the 2015 Charleston church shooting. At that time, the church decided to install 166 cameras across its campus, as well as deploy armed and unarmed guards on the premises during times of high traffic, like Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Redemption also chose to work closely with Greenville Police and the Greenville County Sheriff ’s Office to quickly and easily report suspicious activity.
There’s a fine line when it comes to securing church campuses. The congregation wants the campus and facility to be open and inviting to anyone who decides to worship there, but Hayes believes that the church as a responsibility to protect those coming to their campuses to worship.
“I think there is a fine balance in having an armed security officer at every corner versus being an open-doors, you-come facility,” Hayes said. “But I think you can find that balance.”
THE FINE LINE
For Jim McGuffey, Antiterrorism Assistance Independent Instructor for A.C.E. Security Consultants, the balance for every church is different, but there are a few things that each church can do to give leaders and congregants peace of mind.
“There are many policies and procedures that can be implemented that don’t cost money or create undue concern to protect staff and house of worship members,” McGuffey said. “If leadership communicates safety and security in a professional and well-thought-out process, it can be done without increasing fear.”
Churches all over the country are trying to do just that. For example, in Southwest Florida, Fort Myers’ Riverside Church added concrete barricades to the front of the building, near its entrance, as a response to the deadly incident in South Texas. The church believed the barriers were necessary to prevent any kind of vehicle attack at the church but that they are subtle enough to look built into the architecture of the building instead of coming off as a glaring security measure.
In Central Texas, church campuses are deciding to ban concealed carry permit holders from bringing their guns into sanctuaries. For Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, the Sutherland Springs shooting further cemented their decision to ban guns from their sanctuary. In addition to the ban, they’ve also created volunteer security teams and work closely with the Austin Police Department to educate their members about safety and security.
RESPONSIBILITY TO SECURE
According to McGuffey, the responsibility falls on the campus of worship to keep its members and staff safe when they are on the premises. That starts with a little education. “Education in this area can occur with the pastor providing brief announcements,” McGuffey said. “Sunday school teachers can provide educational messages, pamphlets can be distributed, church websites can share educational videos and messages and special events can be shared for leaders to attend.”
To be ready for specific emergencies, McGuffey suggests church campuses create evacuation plans for active shooter events, earthquakes and others loss events.
“If done correctly, members will appreciate the concern leadership has for safety,” McGuffey said.
FAITH BASED AND NEIGHBORHOOD PARTNERSHIPS
To help church campuses have a well-rounded education on security and safety, the Trump Administration is strengthening their efforts to train places of worship on emergency security protocols.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships began to focus on security during the Obama Administration after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, developing active shooter trainings for schools and houses of worship.
Jamie Johnson, the office’s director, said that recently they have seen “an increased level of concern” from “every faith tradition” when it comes to security.
“This is a wing of American evangelicalism that is deeply hurting right now,” Johnson said. “We are going to be a whole lot busier in the months and years to come when it comes to safety and security for houses of worship. This issue will now come to the forefront of the religious conversation in America.”
Earlier this year, Texas, where the Sutherland Springs shooting took place, had their own discussion about security in church campuses and other houses of worship. Texas Senate Bill 2065, which went into effect Sept. 1, includes language that allows volunteers to provide security at places of worship and be exempt from the requirements of the Private Security Act. The goal was to make it easier for churches and other places of worship to form volunteer security teams, as the legislation waives state requirements on training, licensing, insurance and background checks for these teams, making them a more viable option.
LOOKING TOWARD A MORE SECURE FUTURE
The reality is that security at churches is always evolving. Most church campuses do have procedures and policies in place for emergency situations, but with each violent incident that happens at houses of worship, their security measures change.
With each incident, church leadership is able to evaluate their own procedures and potentially find holes in their own security.
Today, First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs acts as a memorial site for the 26 people who passed away during a church service, which used to be thought of as one of the safest gatherings in the world. Let’s work together to prevent any more violent incidents surrounding some of our most sacred locations in the country.