By Terrell Carter
With multiple incidents occurring over the past year in churches of all kinds, what is the responsibility of local church leaders in order to protect their congregations from random acts of violence?
This question is not strictly an academic exercise. In October 2012, a single gunman killed a congregant during a prayer service being held at a megachurch in Atlanta. In December of 2012, a gunman killed a member of a small congregation in Frankstown, Pa.
This past Sunday, April 28, a man went on a stabbing spree in an Albuquerque, N.M., church, injuring four people.
I was called to serve as pastor of a church in St. Louis in 2004 that had lost its former pastor to violence perpetrated by the hands of a member of the congregation. The congregant attacked the pastor while he was alone in the building, robbing him, stealing his car and leaving him in a coma. Ironically, I was serving as a police officer during that time and the church was located in my area of patrol.
I cannot say that these attacks are evidence of a growing trend of violence being perpetrated at churches, but when incidents like these occur, they can serve as catalysts for pastors and members to begin thinking about, and planning for, their safety while at their facilities.
Practical steps can be enacted by churches of all means and sizes in order to prepare them to avoid becoming victims or perpetrators of violence.
First, pastors and congregations should be realistic about the fact that violence can occur, whether the church is located in an urban or suburban area. Violent offenders prey on kindness. If you have any type of ministry that serves the public, you are likely serving some people who have ulterior motives for coming.
With this reality, be on the lookout for people who may not fit. That is not to say that every outsider that comes to your church is a suspect. The skin color, social status or financial standing of a person does not make them questionable.
But how they act while they are present in your office or facility can be a sign of their intentions. If a person is acting like something is wrong, specific attention needs to be paid.
Second, pastors and congregations should begin to prepare for potential situations of violence. Talk publicly, from the pulpit, church websites and in church bulletins, about your intentions to prepare the church.
Proactively develop a plan of response. The following examples can be used as a foundation:
— Communicate with staff members when visitors are present in your facilities, sharing their anticipated locations and timeframe expected for their visit.
— Office doors should be left open, preferably at all times.
— Install and regularly use an intercom system to let people into the building.
— Develop a firearm policy for your church that takes into account state and local laws. Post the policy to the church website, bulletins and in the church office. Include information that states where the law was located and basic points outlining rights and restrictions.
Third, engage law-enforcement professionals that have a presence in your local community. Public affairs officers from local police departments regularly conduct safety meetings and training free of charge when asked by community groups. Inform your local law-enforcement agency when the church intends on having a special event that may draw a large crowd, and ask them to increase patrols in the area.
These are simple steps that can help congregations better protect themselves from violence without resorting to violence themselves.
The unfortunate reality is that we face potential situations that Christ and his disciples probably never imagined. But, with intentional thought and preparation, pastors and congregations can protect themselves while still being the salt and light in the world.