Trying to prevent incidents like Sunday’s mass shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, congregations must balance two sometimes conflicting Biblical mandates. They want to be the shepherd protecting the flock, but they also want to welcome the stranger at the door.
“How we enforce the law is totally different in a church compared to the outside world sometimes,” said Ed Maness, a retired N.C. Highway Patrol officer who is now director of safety services for Colonial Baptist Church in Cary. “We want to welcome people, but we also want to provide a secure environment for them to be welcomed into.”
While Colonial took security into consideration when it built its campus in the early 2000s, incorporating features such as controlled access to the 185,000-square foot building, other churches are just now realizing how vulnerable they might be to someone walking in with a gun to a Sunday morning worship service, or mid-week Bible study or even a morning preschool program.
Maness is one of many people who have built consulting services dedicated to helping churches recognize and mitigate their safety risks. Maness travels the country visiting churches, looking at their buildings and grounds and the way they allow people to come and go.
“One of the first things people want to know is, ‘How much is it going to cost me to provide security for my church?’ ” Maness said. “The first thing I tell them is, ‘Go internally and look for what you need.’ ”
If the membership includes active-duty or former police or military service members, Maness suggests asking those people to serve on a security team.
“These guys are trained for everything from the threat of terrorism to how to investigate an accident in the parking lot,” Maness said. “They’re a wealth of knowledge.”
In some churches, they may also be armed. North Carolina law allows concealed carry in a church unless the church prohibits it.
Outside help also is available, and some churches hire off-duty officers from their local police or sheriff’s department to work at the church on Sundays. Some officers work in uniform, others blend in with the congregation.
We want to welcome people, but we also want to provide a secure environment for them to be welcomed into.
Ed Maness, a retired N.C. Highway Patrol officer who is director of safety services for Colonial Baptist Church in Cary
Monsignor David D. Brockman of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, which manages Sacred Heart Cathedral and the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, said those churches and others throughout the diocese have security plans, many of which rely on local professionals. He didn’t want to say whether those were hired law enforcement officers or volunteers.
Uniformed security officers were very visible during the dedication of the new cathedral in July.
While mass shootings may be a 21st-century plague, the church worldwide has had disrupters throughout its history, Brockman said.
“Most pastors are very concerned about those who are entrusted to their care: parishioners and visitors,” he said. “They extend that in the fullest measure possible.”
Church security can be an afterthought
Greg Leimone, who owns Sentinel Consulting Group, a security firm in High Point, said he has worked with a handful of churches that contacted him, usually on the heels of a violent incident.
“Security tends to be an afterthought, especially for entities like churches,” Leimone said. Of all his different types of clients, which have included multimillion-dollar global operators and small businesses, “By far, churches have always been the hardest for me to adequately secure. ... Oftentimes, the people the church really wants to welcome and allow in are those who are potentially going through some of the deepest, darkest times of their lives. The church wants to welcome them and that’s the very time when they are the most at risk.
“There is this belief – and I’m a Christian too – that God will protect us. We put our faith in Him. But here we have 26 people who have been killed, and it comes down to, what duty does a church have to protect the people who are there?”
Leimone said when he’s hired to advise a church, he starts with a security audit. He identifies and prioritizes weaknesses that need to be fixed, knowing that church budgets are tight and everything can’t be addressed at once. If a church has a preschool or after-school program, making sure the children are safe is the place to start, Leimone said. Then he suggests ways to make the congregation safer, such as establishing lockdown procedures for Sunday services and weeknight events.
The last piece, he said, is to help the church establish a security team whose members are trained in CPR and emergency first aid.
Church members are the best defense
Rodney Pires, president and CEO of Church Security 360 Degrees of Atlanta, which Pires describes as a ministry, said he has been frustrated by how long it has taken churches to realize that after being under spiritual attack, “Now they’re also under physical attack. But so many have their heads in the sand.”
Pires tells churches that not only are their congregations vulnerable to violence, the churches are exposed to legal liability if they have not taken reasonable steps to ensure people’s safety. That includes exposure to violence, but also to more common risks such as fires, tornadoes, floods and medical emergencies.
Some churches, Pires said, let their congregations know that exterior doors will be locked after a certain time during services and events. Worshipers either must arrive on time, or someone must be posted at the door to allow in latecomers.
For Maness, church members themselves are the best defense.
“We have found that the most important people on campus are your ushers and your greeters at the door,” he said. “They are your eyes and ears. They are the first people to see somebody get out of the car,” and if they are trained to look for suspicious activity, they can alert security or other people in the building.
Colonial Baptist has a radio system that greeters can use if they need help, he said.
Churches that can’t afford to hire security or pay a consultant should contact their local police department, he said, and ask if it can conduct a security audit. Some even conduct training exercises, Maness said.
Even before Sunday’s shooting, President Donald Trump’s Homeland Security department has been ramping up training to help houses of worship develop emergency security procedures, including responding to shooters, according to a Time article.
Far from being put off by security measures even when they are evident, Maness said, most church members appreciate them.
Many refer to their place of worship as their church home and, Maness said, “People want to feel safe in their home.”