This article first appeared in The Alabama Baptist Newspaper on Nov. 16, 2018
BIRMINGHAM, AL – Church shootings are becoming more commonplace in today’s society. Keeping church members safe from active shooters has become a new concern for Southern Baptist pastors and staff.
Recently, on Sunday, November 5, the small congregation at First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs Baptist Church, in Texas fell victim to an active shooter who walked into the church about 11:30 a.m. He killed 26 church members, including the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter, and wounded about 20 others before he died from gunshot wounds. The event was an overwhelming tragedy for this close-knit community, home to about 400 residents. Like most small Southern Baptist churches, First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs has minimal church and grounds security.
In the wake of such terror, many pastors and church leaders are asking how they can protect their church members against this kind of unexpected violence.
Here are some ways to protect your church: (This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it suggested a church needs to act on all of these recommendations)
Hire security guards as a first line of defense. Train volunteer church greeters to be watchful for those who are suspicious and may cause violence. Provide them with two-way radios to report possible danger to an appointed church person.
Meet with local police and learn their strategy for responding to an active shooter. Give police a detailed blueprint of every room in the church to be used if they might need to secure the building. Ask police for up-to-date contact information in case of a church crisis and distribute to church leadership/staff. Ask law officials about a lockdown policy for your church to avoid the chaos of an unexpected evacuation.
Train your deacons to be watchful before, during, and after church worship services and events. Teach them to be actively aware of people/things that seem out of the ordinary. During worship services, place deacons throughout the sanctuary, balcony, and building. Most church shootings take place after the worship service begins.
Consider locking some church entrances after services begin, but use doors that allow members to leave the building if necessary. Put greeters or a security guard outside entrance doors left unlocked to meet latecomers.
Establish an emergency plan in the event of an act of violence and practice it regularly. Equip church leaders and staff with information on how to respond to emergencies, as well as how to get police and medical assistance. Create a list of counselors in your area who can be contacted in case of an emergency.
Hold a disaster leadership workshop. Ask a local police chief to train appointed key leadership/people in your church to deal with active shooters.
Also plan for a post-incident course of action: evacuation and assembly points, witnesses speaking with police, prayer time and counseling, etc.
Make the congregation aware of all emergency exits in the building. Ask members to report any concerns and/or anything out of the ordinary to the appointed central person. Teach them what to do in case of an emergency. This can be done with the congregation as a whole or through newsletters and brochures. Practice emergency procedures together as a church on a selected day.
In your children’s ministry area, organize a safe system of drop off and pick up for each child. Make sure each volunteer worker with children has passed a criminal background check. Station security volunteers or professionals at the entrance of the children’s area. Report any suspicious persons.
In case of an emergency, alert your members to places they can take cover and hide, as well as a designated rally point inside or outside the church.
Know your church members, especially those people who have criminal records, a history of violent behavior, or a grudge against the church and/or leadership.
Establish a good method to communicate among church leaders, staff, and security teams.
Install closed-circuit televisions, alarm systems, and good lighting for church grounds at night, especially in parking lots.
When reporting an active shooter, call 911 immediately. Tell first responders the following urgent information (if you know it):
The estimated number of shooters
The shooter’s location in the building
The type of weapon shooter might be using
The immediacy of the threat
The location of nurseries, children’s ministries, and other sensitive areas
Stay on the line to keep police informed about happenings, etc.
While church shootings are rare, shooting violence is escalating. Taking preventive measures: carefully-placed safeguards, designated security teams, and a practiced plan of action/evacuation can help Southern Baptist churches avoid the tragic results of active shooters and other acts of violence.
Note: To help your church guard against violence and other disasters, you can order a church safety toolkit through GuideStone through a partnership with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company at this website: www.guidestonepropertycasualty.org.
The Definition of An Active Shooter
An armed person(s) whose action is immediately causing death or great bodily injury.
Why the Church May Be Targeted By An Active Shooter
Churches are welcoming to strangers, inviting them inside to join worship services and church events;
Most churches have no pre planned emergency guidelines or established safety precautions;
Security is limited and/or non-existent at many churches;
Church members are often too trusting of those who pass through the church doors;
Churches may not conduct professional criminal background checks before they allow or hire volunteers to work with children, nurseries, etc.
Church worship services provide a shooter with open opportunities to enter church sanctuaries and the greatest number of people to kill or injure at any given time and space.
Most outside and inside doors are unlocked and easily accessible.
Oftentimes church doors may be left unlocked at night.
Who Are the Shooters?
Most shooters are in the 19-50 age bracket. Few shooters are under 18 years old. [Church Mutual Insurance Company]
More than 90% of shooters are male.
The day most shooters choose for violence is Sunday after the worship service begins; the second choice is Wednesday.
Although violence can happen at any time, most active shooters choose the hours between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Most shooters kill themselves after inflicting violence, or are stopped through internal intervention. Few shooters are killed by police because most incidents end before police can arrive on the scene.
Primary motive for the shooter: revenge
Other motives might include:
Mad at the world
Domestic and/or marital problems
Child custody disputes
Congregation disputes and/or denied services
Hatred, anger against church leadership
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Denise George, author of 30 books, is co-author of the new Penguin Random House book: The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Massacred in World War II. She is married to Dr. Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL.