Security tightens at small churches after TX shooting

EASTPOINTE, Mich. (BP) -- "Shell shocked." That's how Michigan pastor Mathew Vroman felt after learning of the Nov. 5 massacre at a small Sutherland Spring, Texas, church that left 26 worship attendees dead at the hands of a gunman.

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So Vroman, pastor of Eastside Community Church in Eastpointe, Mich., joined the expanding cadre of small- and medium-sized-church leaders who are developing security plans in an effort to prevent armed attacks and other threats at their churches.

Secular media outlets are taking note of these security-minded leaders. USA Today reported on a Dec. 5 seminar titled "Church Security in the 21st Century" that drew 650 ministry leaders to Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention cosponsored the seminar.

Before the Sutherland Springs shooting, Vroman told Baptist Press, "I knew I should" develop a security plan. "But I didn't look at it as a priority." The shooting "really kind of shocked me ... I don't want to be a pastor that didn't do all I could to try to protect my folks with a plan."

As a first step toward a fully-orbed security plan, Eastside -- which averages 60-100 in morning worship -- identified a man in the congregation to lead a security team. The church has also begun to station a volunteer security watchman at the door during worship services and started to secure the door in its children's area.

In January, a team from Eastside will attend a church security training session sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of Michigan.

"We ultimately trust the Lord for everything," Vroman said. "But we are not determinists, and we're not fatalists. So we have to be proactive in not just shepherding by preaching the Word, but we also have to protect our people physically, give them a safe place to come."

For John Mark Simmons, pastor of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Las Vegas, this fall brought two tragic reminders of the need for church security: Sutherland Springs and an Oct. 1 shooting at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip that killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others.

"For the last several years, I've been concerned about security at the church," Simmons told BP. But "it wasn't a pressing issue."

Following the two shootings, however, a church member emailed Simmons expressing "a burden to move the church forward" regarding security, the pastor said. In response, Highland Hills -- which averages 250 in worship -- has enlisted a volunteer security team of about 15 church members and held two meetings in route to developing a security plan. The security team has been aided by instructional videos from its insurance company and may attend training sessions in the future.

Among measures Highland Hills has taken already are locking doors that don't need to be open during church events, stationing a "watchman of the day" at the main entrance on Sundays and installing security film on some windows to prevent an intruder form smashing them and entering.

Additionally, the team is educating the entire congregation on what to do in the event of various types of security threats. No one on the team, Simmons noted, is required to carry a gun.

"I hope our attendees and worshipers will feel that we have been diligent and maybe have a bit more peace of mind that we are doing what we can to make the church a safe environment," Simmons said, adding a security team can be an opportunity for otherwise uninvolved members to serve the church body.

The Sutherland Springs shooting likewise impacted Tarpley (Texas) Baptist Church, which, like First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, is small, rural and in the San Antonio area. The day after the Sutherland Springs attack, Tarpley pastor Dick Sisk met with two law enforcement officers in the congregation to hammer out a security plan "that was adapted to our particular situation," Sisk said.

Tarpley's plan includes proactive measures to prevent crimes at the church, procedures to employ in the event of an active threat and protocol to follow after a security threat has passed.

During worship services -- which generally are attended by 80-95 people -- the congregation always has a marked law enforcement vehicle parked near the parking lot entrance, Sisk said, and the two law enforcement officers in the church are armed and seated strategically in the auditorium. Greeters, workers in the sound booth and a team of security volunteers also have been assigned security duties.

Sisk commended church security training events but said small churches can take action even as they wait for the next convenient training event.

Pastors should "sit down with people in law enforcement," Sisk said, "even if they go to another church."

Vroman, Simmons and Sisk all stressed that church security is not only for megachurches with extensive resources.

Congregations of all sizes, Sisk said, can "give ... people a sense of security that somebody is alert and there is a plan in place."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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