Safety in the sanctuary: After Texas church shooting, local officials offer tips to congregations

Published 10:29 am Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Balancing the safety of your congregation with having a warm and inviting church is difficult for pastors and church leaders, especially in light of events like what happened in Sutherland Springs, Texas, just over a week ago.

Choe Sergent

“There’s got to be a balance of being welcoming and being secure,” said Choe Sergent, pastor of the Junction City First Baptist Church on U.S. 127. “I think people do need to take preventative measures, but be smart about it.”

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That means seeking the counsel of professionals, he said.

“We try to be as diligent as we can to prevent that from happening and stop it if it does,” Sergent said.

At Junction City First Baptist, safety has long been part of the discussion, he said. The church created a “safety team” a few years ago, which consists of volunteers and is led by a retired Kentucky State Police Trooper and church member. They use walkie talkies to communicate and have two individuals monitoring security cameras — one in a camera booth and the other via iPad. They attend every service, including the weekly Celebrate Recovery meetings.

The church has safety protocols in place for working with children, too, as the children’s areas require checking kids in and the workers have background checks.

“People are very concerned. I have had multiple people text me and want to know what we’re doing … We deal with a lot of younger families with kids,” he said.

While they haven’t conducted emergency drills, Sergent said they are posting emergency evacuation routes around the church, so people can find their way out in an emergency. 

He said they are planning to increase efforts, however, and perhaps hire an off-duty officer to help. While not all churches can hire someone, he said, they can tap into the resources in the church, such as officers who might also be members.

“We have to really be utilizing the people that God’s sent us, that have those gifts,” Sergent said.

If there are no officers in the church, he said, there are likely volunteers willing to act as security with some training.

The Kentucky Baptist Convention, of which Junction City First Baptist belongs, has devoted a section of their website to security, Sergent said. There are also church security agencies out there, he said, who are often willing to do a free consultation.

Some volunteers, Sergent said, are scared of bearing responsibility should a tragedy happen — that’s why Junction City First Baptist is reaching out to local law enforcement.

Derek Robbins, Boyle County Sheriff

Boyle County Sheriff Derek Robbins said his office has received a few inquiries from churches regarding safety and he is working to put together some things that churches can do to be prepared.

His office has not done any trainings with churches yet.

“We’d be more than happy to help,” Robbins said.

Robbins, along with Emergency Management Director Mike Wilder, offered suggestions on how churches can stay safe — which Robbins stressed were simply suggestions.

“They’re not foolproof plans to keep you safe,” Robbins said.

The tips include:

• develop a relationship with law enforcement in the community, notifying them if threats are made or disturbances happen in the church;

• have visible deterrents, such as officers or first responders who are members drive clearly marked cars and wear uniforms; and

• hold safety trainings for volunteers or staff.

Robbins said he recommends carrying weapons to church if the individuals carrying them have training and the church community is comfortable with it.

The same way that schools have emergency drills, Robbins said churches and families should have their own emergency plans and drills — that’s something his office can help with.

“In law enforcement, in the academy, they tell you to think of different situations and how you would react to it … people need to keep those plans in the back of their minds. You can’t be prepared for everything, but you can prepare for something and it may save your life,” Robbins said.

Mike Wilder, EMA director

Wilder said it is important that a church’s emergency plan be well-known to members and practiced regularly.

They said ushers or greeters are another good safety tool.

“Greet people in the parking lot — that’s the first defense,” Robbins said. “You can see someone walking across the parking lot and alert others.”

With ushers, having an early warning plan is a good idea.

“Just having a plan is important. There’s not a script for this,” Robbins said.

Robbins said it’s a fine line for churches, between being welcoming and “so strategic” that they are no longer welcoming.

“It’s up to each church to figure out what the balance is,” he said. “Church doors used to stay unlocked and now it’s not so easy anymore. It’s a different world than 20 or 30 years ago.”

Wilder said most churches don’t face a threat of terrorist attacks, but are more threatened by domestic situations such as what happened in Sutherland Springs.

“Any church is going to be faced with domestic issues,” he said. “People’s emotions get carried away … shootings are hard to predict and hard to stop. The more preparation you have, the better chances of survival.”

And, as always Wilder said, “if you see something, say something.”

For Wilder, the shooting in Texas was particularly personal, because it reminded him of his church in Perryville, a church of about 50 people.

“It’s important to quit being naive and say, ‘It could never happen here.’ It’s better to be proactive than reactive,” Wilder said.

Sergent said his church utilizes greeters and are limiting the number of doors people can enter; the church has several entrances, but only allows people to come in through two. All of them can be used as exits.

While some churches may encourage people to carry weapons to church, Sergent said that’s not something they are doing.

“If they’re carrying a gun, we’re asking them to take it back to their car,” he said, explaining that they have a large church, don’t always know every person that comes in and many people feel unsafe with guns in the church, unless the carrier is a trained law enforcement officer.

“We are making sure people are protected, but we need to clamp down on vigilantes,” Sergent said. He said they want to stick with using individuals they know have had training in such situations, in the rare chance it does happen, to reduce risk to other parishioners.

“I have heard of pastors putting pistols in their pulpits. I’m not going there. I think we have to be prudent in doing everything we can, but I think there’s a line you can cross where it’s too much,” Sergent said. “Everyone’s reaction is to put a gun on their hip, but it’s not always the best reaction.”