Churches look at security after Sandy Hook

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RALEIGH, N.C. (ABP)–The Sandy Hook school massacre terrified parents nationwide and sparked a debate on gun control and school security. But it’s also led to some soul searching on church staffs worried about how to best protect worshipers and school children in their buildings.

“For me it’s a reminder that these kinds of things can happen anywhere,” said Christopher Chapman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C.

Christopher Chapman

While violence in school is nothing new, incidents like the Connecticut shootings and the child sexual abuse case at Penn State University call ministers to revisit existing security measures and consider new ones, Chapman said.

But it’s not as easy as simply making a decision or writing a check — assuming the funds are available — to add security guards or cameras.

“Often there is very little will to actually do anything,” he said. “Once you get away from the emotion, people start hemming and hawing — there’s a pretty small window of time to act.”

But act they must, church security experts say.

‘Train your responders’

“It’s not a subject you can ignore,” said J. Phillip Martin, deputy chief executive officer at the National Association of Church Business Administration.

J. Phillip Martin

Martin said churches should at least be asking questions about who’s at risk in their buildings, and at what times. Some hire armed security guards or encourage members to carry guns. Others use electronic security systems or have ministers and ushers trained to alert authorities and lead evacuations.

“There is no particular model that’s right for everyone,” Martin said. “The important thing is: do you know what you will do? Do you have procedures in place and are you training your first responders?”

That also applies to small congregations and those without schools meeting on their properties. Those ministries are often lulled into a sense of false security when only the major shootings make headlines, Martin said.

A simple Google search on church shootings will reveal that this isn’t just a big-church problem, Martin said. He cited a 2008 event in which two were killed and several injured in a shooting at a Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tenn. An October 2012 church shooting in Atlanta, which killed one person, has all but been forgotten — especially in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Anna Fraser of Knoxville lays flowers at the sign of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, where two people died and several were injured in a 2008 shooting (Clay Owen/Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Martin advises churches not to let tight budgets limit their creativity on this issue. They can ask their insurance companies about existing programs to help with security.

“There are many congregations that still do not take this as seriously as they need to,” he said.

Christians often ‘too nice’

Another trap congregations fall into is planning for shootings while overlooking more common security issues, said Rolando Lopez, a former FBI agent and Texas-based security consultant who once led televangelist Benny Hinn’s security detail.

Church security needs to extend into parking lots and playgrounds, which are common places not only for violence but also kidnappings by strangers and estranged family members, he said.

Rolando Lopez

Background checks on staff and volunteers who work with children can always be beefed up, said Lopez, the founder of Orphan Secure, which provides security assessments for orphanages around the world.

“You need to wait at least six months to let someone volunteer (with children),” he said. “If they are serious about helping kids today, they’ll be serious about it in six months.”

Congregations also are victims of burglary, theft and other crimes on campus, like rape. And while no security systems are perfect, they can often be undermined by Christians who don’t want to be rude to visitors, Lopez said.

“That’s our biggest problem,” he added. “We as Christians are taught to be nice to everybody, and even if I should question this guy, I don’t know how.”

Balancing ministry, security

Hence churches’ constant struggle to find the balance between security and hospitality, Chapman said. At First Baptist in Raleigh, where the building is in constant use by school children and their parents, and also ministries to the homeless and others in need, entry points are limited and accessible only after being buzzed in, Chapman said.

Background checks are routinely conducted as well, and plans for fires and natural disasters also are in place. Sandy Hook has the church discussing how improvements can be made, Chapman added, but “planning for a more difficult scenario doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

In Asheville, N.C., First Baptist Church is about to install keycards to further lock down areas where school children are present, said David Blackmon, the congregation’s coordinating pastor.

David Blackmonz

“Because everybody’s got their eyes open again in a different way because of Sandy Hook, you are going to see vulnerabilities you never saw before and ask if you are doing all that you can,” Blackmon said.

But security must be weighed against the church call to ministry in the community, he said.

“We must continue to be an open and caring congregation that reaches out to everyone and realize that makes you somewhat vulnerable,” he said. “That’s just part of being present in the world and being present with those people who are deeply broken and hurting.”


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