Protecting Your Church Against Violence
by David Roach
On June 22, 1980, members of First Baptist Church in Daingerfield, Texas, were singing “More About Jesus” in the morning worship service when a gunman entered and yelled, “This is war!” Then he opened fire, shooting fifteen people and killing five.
It was the first mass murder by shooting at an American church. Sadly, similar acts of violence have occurred at other churches in the years since. In both mass shootings and individual episodes of violence, people continue to die at the hands of violent intruders in houses of worship. Since 1999, when violent episodes at churches and other places of worship began to escalate with alarming frequency, 427 people have died in incidents involving deadly force at faith-based organizations in America, according to church security expert Carl Chinn. During that time, more deadly force incidents have occurred in Baptist churches (135) than in any other denomination.
In the midst of such violence, church safety leaders urge Southern Baptist congregations of all sizes to take preventive measures before it is too late.
“It’s unlikely that any one congregation will face a violent intruder,” Jim Welch, director of property and casualty at GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, told SBC LIFE. “But unfortunately it’s likely that some will. So at GuideStone we want to equip Southern Baptist churches to . . . be prepared for this event if it ever happens to them.”
GuideStone, which provides property and casualty insurance coverage to churches through a partnership with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, has a church safety toolkit on its website (www.guidestonepropertycasualty.org) to help churches guard against violence and other disasters.
A HISTORY OF CHURCH SHOOTINGS
One of the worst church shootings on record occurred in 1999 at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Seven people were killed and seven more injured when a lone gunman entered the sanctuary during a See You At The Pole rally on a Wednesday night. At the end of the rampage, the gunman sat on the back pew and shot himself in the head.
Though church shootings occurred before 1999, that year marked the beginning of a continuing wave of violence that includes murders and suicides on faith-based properties. Church security specialist Jimmy Meeks called 1999 “the year the dam broke” in terms of church violence.
“In my law enforcement career . . . I’ve never seen so many angry people, and angry people will hurt you,” said Meeks, a police officer in Hurst, Texas, who also travels the country doing church security seminars. “In people there’s a lot of anger, and when you’re angry you just don’t care where you commit your crime.”
Some church violence garners widespread media coverage, like the 2007 shooting at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where two were killed, and the 2009 shooting at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois, where pastor Fred Winters received four fatal wounds to the chest. But violent deaths continue, more than thirty per year, even when there is little national media attention.
In December 2012 alone, the last month for which Chinn had posted records on his website, there were ten violent crimes committed on church property in which deadly force was either used or threatened.
For example, on December 9, 56-year-old Kelvin Adams shot his ex-girlfriend two times as she came out of a morning service at Faith Center Church in Sunrise, Florida. Then he used the gun to commit suicide. The victim survived.
And on December 21, a gunman entered Juniata Valley Gospel Church in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and shot Kimberly Scott as she decorated the building. Before police cornered and killed the gunman, he killed two other people in a crime spree at multiple locations.
“Every seminar I do I put these statistics before the people,” Meeks said of church crime statistics. “Ninety-nine percent of them will admit that they had no idea this was going on.”
PREVENTING VIOLENCE AT CHURCH
After the shooting in Daingerfield, some church attendees lost their faith in God while others suffered nightmares and plotted revenge, said Sondra Martin Hicks, producer and director of a documentary on the east Texas shooting. She added that the divorce rate in the congregation surged following the shooting and urged pastors who want to help their churches avoid such misery to start church security ministries.
“When you watch this film as a pastor, you’ll see that if you risk not doing anything, you’re risking people’s lives forever,” Hicks said.
The documentary, titled “Faith Under Fire,” is the product of more than two years of work and is available for shipping costs at Hicks’ website, www.heartstonepictures.com.
Forming a security ministry team should be a priority at both large and small churches, GuideStone’s Welch said. Ideally, the team should consist of active and retired law enforcement personnel along with carefully selected and trained laypeople, he said. Their duties should be to assess risks, establish a plan for responding to security threats, and make sure the church has adequate insurance coverage to help victims recover if crime occurs, according to Welch.
Churches should check state and local laws and seek legal counsel when evaluating security needs because some states limit who can carry a gun to church and what terms can be used to describe security ministries.
“Though some people may bristle or be concerned when they hear something about a safety and security ministry or safety and security team in a church, frankly security is visible everywhere we go—whether it be to the ballgame or a theme park or whatever,” Welch said. “So a visible, friendly, ministry-minded team is something that can help make visitors as well as members feel welcome and safe.”
Among the security risks that teams should look for are:
• Entry doors without a greeter to monitor them.
• Unsecure children’s areas.
• Doors that remain unlocked during the night where intruders can slip in and hide.
During church activities, security ministry members should watch for suspicious behavior like people leaving at unexpected times, especially if they leave something behind they entered with, people wearing trench coats in hot weather, and people wandering in the parking lot.
Teams should also establish ways to communicate with each other and with church leaders quickly if an intruder enters, and should have specific plans for how to evacuate or lock down buildings, Welch said.
“Some of these security concerns don’t require a considerable amount of capital outlay to be worked on,” he said. “For example, alerting your Sunday School teachers of an intruder could be as simple as sending a group text message to the teachers on their cell phones. Or evacuating worship centers could be facilitated by [having] the right kind of door latches or moving furniture out of the way.”
CONFRONTING A SHOOTER
Though having an active shooter in the building is an unlikely scenario for any church, it is important to plan for the possibility, according to Welch and Meeks.
Following protocols rather than improvising a response is one of the best ways to prevent deaths and injuries, Welch said. Among the steps he recommended if a violent intruder enters a church:
• Alert the entire security ministry team and the police.
• Evacuate worshipers when possible and lock doors in areas that can be secured.
• Have trained security personnel approach and incapacitate the intruder.
Additionally, make sure your congregation knows that you have a plan in place to address a violent intruder—as well as what steps you want them to take (including evacuating calmly or seeking shelter).
“You’ve got to go wild on this person that comes in your congregation,” Meeks said of confronting an active shooter. “There has to be a group of men sitting strategically that are just going to go berserk and rise up against this person and go after him.”
Churches that can afford it should hire off-duty police officers or a security company to provide armed security, Meeks said, emphasizing that an armed response is extremely helpful in the event of an armed intruder.
Security should not be the main focus of any church, according to Meeks. But providing adequate security helps create an environment for making disciples—one where people don’t fear violence and where memories of violence don’t hinder them from attending church, he said.
“One reason I am so passionate about this to the point where it’s hard to talk without weeping is that I have witnessed for thirty-two years the misery that violence leaves behind,” he said. “They’re still weeping and still hurting at Daingerfield. It’s been almost thirty-three years.”
He urged churches to protect worshipers and remember that God opposes those who plot violence.
David Roach, a member of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, is editorial associate for SBC LIFE .
MASS MURDER AT US CHURCHES: A HISTORY
by Carl Chinn
The Federal Bureau of Investigation describes “mass murder” as four or more murders occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive period of time between the murders. Typically, but not always, these events involve a single location where victims are killed in an ongoing incident.
Using this description, the following recounts mass murders at churches on US soil since 1960. The number of incidents where one, two, or three people have been killed or seriously wounded in church settings has escalated over the past fifty years and numbers in the hundreds.
September 15, 1963
16th Street Baptist Church
Domestic terrorists planted a concoction of dynamite on a timer which exploded under a street-side stairwell at the church. An eleven-year-old and three fourteen-year-old girls were killed.
June 22, 1980
First Baptist Church
A gunman attacked the Sunday morning service, coming through the sanctuary doors, yelling “this is war,” and firing into the congregation. He killed a seven-year-old girl, an adult woman, and three adult men in the shooting, which lasted barely one minute.
March 10, 1999
New St. John Baptist Church
On a Wednesday an estranged husband with a gun killed his wife’s mother at her home then drove to the church, where he walked into the evening service. When the gunman’s two-year-old son said, “Daddy,” the gunman said, “Boy, don’t call me daddy now,” and killed him. He then killed his wife and a young man sitting nearby.
September 15, 1999
Wedgwood Baptist Church
Fort Worth, Texas
A man, distraught over his father’s death, drove to what appeared to be a random location choice where a See You at the Pole celebration rally was being held. He shot his first victim while walking in the lobby doors, asking, “Is this where that (expletive deleted) prayer meeting is going on?” He killed two seminary students, a member of the church staff, and four teenagers before taking his own life.
March 12, 2005
Living Church of God
Angry at his pastor’s sermon, a man left the Sunday morning service and came back in shooting. He killed the pastor and six others before killing himself.
August 28, 2005
Sash Assembly of God Church
A neighbor of the church walked up to a deacon in the parking lot, whom he shot and killed. He then shot and killed the pastor who was standing nearby. As he fled the scene, he shot and killed two women who had stopped on a road to check their horse trailer.
May 21, 2006
Ministry of Jesus Christ Church
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
An estranged husband attacked his wife in church, killing four others as he stormed into the service. He kidnapped his wife out of the church and killed her at another location. He also shot and critically wounded the pastor.
December 9, 2007
YWAM (Arvada) and New Life Church (Colorado Springs)
Arvada and Colorado Springs, Colorado
A young man posted a suicide diatribe on the internet stating, “Christian America this is YOUR Columbine.” He then killed a young man and woman at a YWAM training facility, continuing to New Life Church, where he killed two teenage sisters before being stopped by church security.
Carl Chinn is a church security expert and the author of Evil Invades the Sanctuary: The Case for Security in Faith-Based Organizations. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.