The murder of twenty-six innocent people at First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs, Texas last Sunday put all churches on notice. I was as horrified as everyone else—for the victims and their families, of course, but as a pastor I also grieved for congregations everywhere. Not even churches are safe from the mindless violence sweeping the nation, and security is now a crucial part of ministry.
When 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley put on black tactical gear and walked into the middle of the worship service with a semi-automatic weapon, he encountered no barriers or obstacles. The church was wide open to him.
We’re confronted with the reality of evil people who will use our hospitality as a weapon
Pastors know first-hand how easy it would be for something like that to happen anywhere. Our focus is on welcoming people into the house of the Lord and we make our buildings easy to get into for that to happen. Now we’re confronted with the reality of evil people who will use our hospitality as a weapon. It feels now as if our mission is in conflict with our security and for me and most pastors that’s a painful position to be in.
What are we supposed to do? We’re people of faith who depend on God for our needs. At the same time, we’re conducting ministry today in uncharted territory, surrounded by hate and a bend toward violence that can consume us at any moment.
Do we really want to worship surrounded by armed guards?
Churches are responding in different ways. I know of some where uniformed security personnel are visible everywhere over the campus. These are larger churches, to be sure, and they deal with thousands of people every Sunday. And I fully understand how they’re trying to protect people from the potential of violence. Still, do we really want to worship while surrounded by armed guards?
It’s not a lack of faith on the part of a pastor to guard his flock against predators.
Other churches aren’t responding at all, maybe because they feel security concerns reveal a lack of faith or because they’re just irresponsible. But that’s not a mature stance. The people in our congregations should know that reasonable measures of security are in place so that they can worship in safety. It’s not a lack of faith on the part of a pastor to take proactive steps in order to guard his flock against predators.
I think there are ways to provide security for congregations that are effective, prudent and spiritual. Ed Stetzer in a piece he posted earlier this week helped me think through the best way for pastors to help their churches be more secure.
First, we have to take the need for security seriously. No congregation is exempt from the threat of violence. Regardless of location, size or denomination, all churches are exposed and vulnerable. Here in South Carolina we know the threat better than most because of the 2015 church shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church. Here’s a previous blog on that earlier church shooting.
Second, each congregation needs to develop strong relationships with local law enforcement. We’re blessed to have those relationships within our own community and I’m especially thankful for a Chief of Police in our town who’s active in his own church and maintains excellent relations with all other congregations. He and his officers are a great source of comfort for all of us.
Third, it’s best to have some sort of visible deterrence. For our church that means two off-duty, uniformed officers we have on site every Sunday. We also have a team of volunteers in place to supplement the professional officers (we’re currently expanding this volunteer group). Other churches may have more. Some may have less. Their presence goes a long way toward helping our people feel safe as well as deterring any potential problems.
Fourth, provide on-going training for staff and volunteers. This is the hardest part to maintain but the most crucial. Providing this kind of training elevates the security issue to the same level of importance Bible teaching, outreach and other congregational ministries, which is a great shift in priorities. But that’s where it should be. For most of us, hiring enough professional law enforcement personnel is prohibitively expensive, so we need to utilize volunteers within our congregations with law enforcement backgrounds. I’ve found they’re always glad to help because they love their church and recognize the need for security more than anyone else.
Finally, every church must recognize that our security ultimately rests with the Lord. There’s no earthly way we can provide for every possible threat; but what we can do is what believers have done from the beginning. We place our trust in God and live by faith.
(Thanks to USA Today for the image at top)