Last week, a man shot and killed two college students on their way into a Bible study at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. Then he killed himself.
Two and a half weeks earlier, a man entered Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. After chaining the doors shut, he shot into an after-church lunch gathering, killing one person and wounding five others.
In late February, a man visiting his children inside The Church in Sacramento shot and killed the three children, the visitation supervisor, and himself.
These high-profile incidents have many pastors asking, “What should I do to ensure our church can gather safely? How can we avoid an active shooter incident at our church? How can we avoid mass casualties if a shooting does unfold?”
As a former security manager, concealed weapons instructor, and church planter, I’ve found seven principles help me think carefully about these important questions.
1. Church safety is about more than active shooters—but not less.
Although high-profile incidents capture the nation’s attention, the likelihood of an active shooter incident at your church is low. Since 1999, there have only been 22 fatal church shootings, according to LifeWay Research. Most of them didn’t happen during worship services, but during Bible studies, prayer services, or in the parking lot.
The likelihood of an active shooter incident at your church is incredibly low.
This means that over 23 years, approximately 350,000 churches in the U.S. met at least 418.6 million times for Sunday worship. Only nine of those services were interrupted by deadly violence.
To be clear: any shooting—regardless of the location—deserves our attention and efforts to prevent it. But pastors who are committed to the safety of their congregations ought to consider a wide range of threats in addition to active shooters. Burglary, vandalism, armed robbery, and rape occur far more frequently than shooting on a church’s property. Threats in your parking lot are more common than threats in your building. And, as we have seen, sometimes the threats we need to protect against come from inside the church.
So invest more resources in preventing these lower-profile crimes than in responding to a potential active shooter.
2. Understand the ‘Mall Cop Principle.’
When I managed 200 security officers, I was part of a manned guarding industry in the U.S. that accounts for about $60 billion. Much of this revenue comes from unarmed guard services. So why do large corporations around the U.S.—a nation well-known for gun violence—rely so heavily on unarmed guards?
Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of response. The presence of security officers making rounds in a parking lot, keeping watch over the main entrance, or confirming that doors remain locked deters those who are on the hunt for a soft target for violence or theft. Lights, cameras, and alarm services provide other forms of passive deterrent as well.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of response.
If you understand the “mall cop principle,” you can more competently address the question of an off-duty officer, armed security, or armed congregants in your church. An off-duty officer can be a strategic way for your church to create a relationship with the law enforcement community as well as a wise safety measure for your church. But off-duty officers aren’t cheap. An armed security team may be a worthwhile consideration for your church, but based on your theology or philosophy of ministry, you may rule out this practice. A well-trained, unarmed security team is more than sufficient for the majority of threats.
Armed congregants are a different matter. As a concealed weapon permit (CWP) instructor, I know that the expertise and ability of CWP-holders varies widely. So as a pastor, I would discourage or, in the case of the laws in my home state of South Carolina, disallow most CWP-holders from carrying on the church premises unless they serve as a properly trained member of the church security team.
Because the low risk of an active shooter is not—from my perspective—worth the risk of an accidental discharge or a sloppy response to a real or perceived threat. If someone desires to protect the congregation from violence, I need to know they understand how to escalate properly, they’ve invested time in practice, and they’ve given due consideration to our facility and the dangers of using a firearm within that space.
3. Doors: Use them.
The Hollywood idea of the Secret Service agent who’s always counting doors isn’t all that far from the truth. Security really does focus on the doors—one of the oldest security systems ever invented.
Main doors should be locked after everyone has entered the building. A team member will need to watch the doors to open them as needed. Doors to particular zones in the church, such as the children’s wing, should be locked during the service. Teachers should know how to block secondary doors as needed. Alternative exits should be visible and easy to access in the event of a safety threat. Thinking about making doorways safer is a simple yet valuable exercise.
4. Build relationships and protect them.
Nearly half of the church-related shootings over the last two decades have stemmed from domestic disputes. Faithful pastors frequently find themselves in the midst of these issues—reporting to authorities, counseling victims, and extending benevolence. Even if you’re not aware of these circumstances, your small group and Bible study leaders probably are.
As these situations come to light, have a defined process by which your security team is informed along with formal reporting to civil authorities. Once the security team knows, they can ensure the information is conveyed to the children’s workers, issue a trespass notice, and/or alert the security workers. As emotionally exhausting and volatile as it is to shepherd a victim through domestic violence, your involvement and awareness could play a preventative role in keeping everyone safe at your church’s gatherings.
5. Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.
Develop plans for active shooters just as you would for other horrible events you hope would never happen in your church. A good plan executed imperfectly almost certainly has better results than no plan at all.
A good plan executed imperfectly almost certainly has better results than no plan at all.
Appoint a security team in your church who is aware of the latest research and best practices. Ensure that the team has developed and practiced reasonable plans to deter and respond to threats at your church. Pursue appropriate licensing for your security team, if necessary. Train your childcare workers to respond to fires, medical emergencies, and violent threats.
6. Seek wisdom.
Even after eight years in various kinds of security work and numerous hours of training inside the classroom and out, I know these pieces of advice are just the tip of the iceberg—and may need to be adjusted given your scenario.
So, don’t take my word for it. Pray that God gives you wisdom on how best to care for the bodies and souls of those under your care.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be the expert on every issue. God has also given us talented people in our churches who can assist in this area. Talk to members with security, law enforcement, or military experience. Seek out experts in the community. Develop friendships with local law enforcement and treat them to a meal in exchange for their feedback on your plans. Create forums for your community to discuss safety and security concerns. Subscribe to local police and neighborhood reports so you can be better aware of trends in your area. Talk with your insurance company to see if they have any free resources. And—if you have a sizable risk or sizable budget—consider hiring a security consultant to meet with your security and leadership team for training.
7. Don’t let fear sideline mission.
I remember visiting a small church in a suburban setting. As I approached the worship center, a door came flying open. A short, balding gentleman pressed a bulletin into my hand and said, “Here.”
No one said hello, so I slipped into a seat in the back row. I thumbed open the bulletin and noticed a line at the bottom left corner: “All persons, objects, and bags are subject to search.” On a hunch, I watched my “greeter” occasionally throughout the rest of the service. Sure enough, he stayed posted at the main entrance, nervously watching the parking lot like a hawk. I left feeling as if I had undergone a risk assessment, rather than received a welcome from brothers and sisters.
Pastors, security paranoia is noticeable. It creates a false sense of security for insiders and awkwardness or even fear for outsiders. Let the church’s mission drive your security team, not the other way around.
Yes, we’re called to be wise about safety. But we’re also charged with being generous, hospitable, and bold in sharing the gospel. We can worship and work with peace and confidence, knowing we have nothing to be afraid of, because our days are numbered by the God who is our ultimate security.