?It’s safe to say that when the pastor of First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., began preaching his Sunday morning message on March 8, 2009, he had no idea it would be his last. Neither did his congregation, who witnessed the horrific scene.
Standing up and moving from his seat as Pastor Fred Winters was speaking, a 28-year-old man walked toward the pulpit. Reports indicate the surprised church members initially thought a skit had started, since Winters was sometimes known to use dramatic illustrations to emphasize a point. But four gun shots and just seconds later, the pastor was dead and two church members were wounded with non-critical injuries as they’d tackled the assailant, stopping him from inflicting even more violence.
Pastors and church members alike find this act of violence in a place of worship hard to understand. We want to believe it’s a rare occurrence. We read the news stories and think, How horrible-but I could never see that happening in my church.
The Maryville attack is just the latest in a series of violent crimes in churches widely reported by the media, with many more incidents occurring that are not reported.
SCG International, a security organization, recently released a year-long study on the issue of violence against churches and other places of worship in the United States. Its findings show churches are increasingly falling victim to violent acts by individuals, usually male, 25 to 60 years old, who are angry with God and the church and see a church as an easy target.
With the noticeable increase in danger, more churches are examining whether the security plans they have in place are enough. In some cases, churches that once thought they didn’t need a plan have finally become convinced they do. A poll conducted by churchsolutionsmag.com in March showed 67 percent of its respondents said their churches were going to increase security, and 14 percent wished they could but lacked the necessary resources. The remaining 19 percent of those surveyed indicated they felt the shootings were isolated incidents and did not feel pressure to increase security.
The latter is a dangerous view to hold, though, say church security experts. Jeffrey Hawkins is the executive director of the Christian Security Network. His organization tracks church incidents on a daily basis that “cost lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars in monetary losses,” he says. “God tells us in the Bible to foresee danger and plan ahead and to be good stewards of what He gives us. As pastors have told us, it is the moral, ethical and biblical thing to do.”
Protecting the Flock
Church leaders are taking the initiative to organize training conferences for churches in their communities. Steven Strauch is director of missions for the Lawrence County Baptist Association in Missouri. He recently held a training session for the churches in his association and invited two security experts, including a local sheriff. He acknowledges that churches have a natural desire to be welcoming.
“Churches have been the last place to want to restrict access and appear unwelcoming,” says Strauch. “However, because of this they are now the most vulnerable and at the greatest risk for a person of violence to act.” Strauch points out that while most schools and businesses today have security plans, many churches still do not.
Violent confrontations are just one type of incident churches need to be prepared to deal with, says Jeff Hawkins. Plans should “prevent and address things like liability, crime, critical incidents [medical, fire, severe weather] and lost or missing children.”
For those churches just starting to think about security, there are three important steps to take when getting started:
Arrange an independent safety audit of your church with local law enforcement. If your church does not already have an established relationship with your local police department, now is the time to make that happen. Most local police welcome the opportunity to help places of worship make their congregations and buildings safer and will offer good tips and suggestions on what can be done for your church’s situation.
Dave Travis, managing director for Leadership Network, also suggests checking with your church’s insurance company. Most offer free consulting and books on the subject and are receptive to church clients who call with the goal of improving security and wanting assistance. “In my experience, they send someone out pronto because it’s in their best interest as well,” says Travis. “And they don’t charge because they want to keep your business.”
Know your local state laws and legal requirements. Does your state allow concealed weapons in a place of worship? Can a volunteer with a concealed weapons permit serve on your security team, or must he or she be licensed as a security professional by the state and on the church’s payroll for liability reasons. Understanding what is and isn’t allowed will assist you as you work with others in your church to develop a well-thought-out security plan.
Develop your security program. “A good security program is like an iceberg-you only see about 10 percent of it,” says Hawkins. “The rest is below the surface that people will never see. That’s how a security program in a church should work; people only see a small part of it, but the rest is there in the event of a situation.”
Andy Rodgers is the systems director for Houston’s First Baptist Church and has served on staff there for almost 30 years. Part of his responsibilities include acting as security liaison, a role he took on when he first started in 1979 and began assisting the Houston police officers who worked with HFBC.
“Security is not just about the problems that make the big news, but it’s also being prepared for the day-to-day prevention,” says Rodgers.
Physical safety of staff and members is important and can include making sure the fire code and other requirements are being followed. It’s important to be aware of issues that could create problems-hazards that might cause someone to trip and fall or dark areas around the church that could invite potential
unwelcome entry from individuals wishing to do harm.
Rodgers says churches need to have a plan in place to handle “simple disruptions” to the church program. These could include noisy cell phone users, a baby crying during the service or a person wandering through the sanctuary looking for friends he or she wants to sit with. “None of these require a SWAT team, but each could be better handled with a prepared plan of how the church wants these disruptions cared for,” says Rodgers.
He suggests some preliminary actions that could help. If babies are not normally kept in your worship service, ushers or greeters should take the opportunity to meet the parents and let them know about your church’s wonderful childcare options. Once a service starts, access to the sanctuary can be limited to the doors that are the least distracting, making sure there are hosts at those doors to assist late-comers and help them find appropriate seating.
“Put some trust in the ‘Holy Hunch’ or DLR [Doesn’t Look Right],” advises Rodgers. “If a greeter or a staff member becomes wary of a visitor, a point needs to be made to speak to that person and gather more information. It may be someone to keep an eye on, or it may be someone just so uncomfortable in church that he doesn’t know what to do and needs some help.”
Developing Your Church’s Security Team
Security within a church setting can be difficult to think about. There’s a natural expectation from most that church experiences are safe, and violent incidents are the last thing someone might expect to happen while in worship. And no one wants to see the image of a security guard, arms folded, standing at the door of your church, glaring down at your members and visitors as they attempt to walk in! But a carefully chosen and well-trained church security team made up of both staff and volunteers can help a great deal to establish planned safety responses without going to the extreme of posting an armed guard at every door.
“Our objective is to keep everyone-the church, the pastors and all of our guests including members and visitors-safe without creating a distracting or alarming environment,” says Brian McAuliffe, the CFO and director of operations at Willow Creek Community Church.
Careful thought should be given to every element of the program, including what your church calls the security team. Some churches call this group a Safety Team; others want to emphasize the ministry behind the service and have established a Safety Ministry. Willow Creek has a Protection Ministry for their children’s program.
Churches should recruit qualified members who will be most effective serving on a safety team. Willow Creek’s team is made up of volunteers who are retired or off-duty officers with the exception of one paid staff member. “They meet each weekend prior to the services to review current church programs or events and evaluate how the plans need to be updated or altered,” says McAuliffe. “We have a monthly safety meeting involving all the major departments to go over upcoming and prior events, to look for learning and to have everyone prepared for the next event.”
It should be very clear to team members what they are expected and not expected to do. Do they observe and report? Do they help plan and write procedures? Who will carry weapons and who will not? Are they expected to intervene if there is a problem? And if yes, do they have the skills and training necessary to do so?
McAuliffe says that strong leadership is also crucial when it comes to a solid security team. “Churches need someone who is both sold out on the Lord and very experienced. They keep the correct balance of making sure ministry happens the way it needs to happen and still keep one eye open for trouble.”
At Houston’s First Baptist, Andy Rodgers says their team includes uniformed private security and law enforcement officers as well as plain-clothes security professionals. Other volunteers have important roles, such as helping plan and prepare security policies, serving as ushers and greeters, patrolling hallways and parking lots during service times and providing pastor assistance during services that does not include security intervention.
Rodgers believes it’s important for churches to first use existing law enforcement officers and security professionals if possible. “You’re asking someone to do a task that is very specialized and will likely require him to a make an instant decision on how to handle an issue that could involve someone’s life,” he says. “This can be a tough call under the best of conditions, which this will almost certainly not be. There isn’t time to call a meeting or ask a couple of others what they might do. It’s good to have a person in the hot seat who can quickly draw from his own knowledge and experiences on what actions may be needed.”
Carl Chinn is a writer and speaker who frequently talks with church groups about security based on almost 20 years of experience dealing with security issues in ministry situations. His first experience was at Focus on the Family shortly after they moved the organization’s offices from California to Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 1991, as building engineer for Focus, Chinn’s attention was the ministry’s building program. But when a bomb threat was received, security also became his concern.
“The operators who took the call didn’t know what to do with it; and since I had facilities maintenance, it wound up on my desk,” recalls Chinn. “That’s when I got introduced to Colorado Springs’ Police Department; and when the second bomb threat came in two months later, I met with them again.”
Chinn and others realized that a security program was needed, and he participated on the committee that was tasked with developing it. After the Oklahoma City bombings happened in 1995, Chinn was asked to work with an assistant to the president at Focus to create a ministry-wide emergency action plan that would allow the ministry to be ready for any major incident. The facilities department would fund the parts and pieces needed, and the security department would manage it. On May 2, 1995, Chinn turned in their budget proposal to the vice president. As the budget process progressed over the next year, some items were approved and others taken out of the proposal.
One year later, on May 2, 1996, Chinn was in his office at Focus. The work he had done for the emergency action plan was progressing, and some of the security systems that had been approved had just been installed. “They were so new, they hadn’t even been tested yet,” Chinn remembers. One of those systems was a radio alert, where people in strategic places of vulnerability could hit a button and the entire security team would be notified at once over radio that there was a problem.
As Chinn was working in his office that day, his radio sounded an alarm, notifying him there was a situation needing attention at the front desk in the administration building.
Chinn got up to walk to the nearby location. “I remember thinking it was probably the receptionist wondering what the button was about,” he says. Looking at his watch, he timed the distance from his desk to the front lobby. Seventeen seconds wasn’t bad.
That’s when he looked up and saw the gun.
A man who had been permanently injured while working as a construction worker when the Colorado offices for Focus were being built had taken two women in the front lobby hostage and was threatening to blow up the building. Because of the ministry’s quick security response, effective law enforcement tactics and prayer, the man was ultimately convinced by police to release the hostages and eventually taken into custody. But for Chinn, if security had not been at the forefront of his mind before, it certainly was now.
Bringing Guns to Church
Since that day, Chinn has made it a personal mission to help others understand the importance of security in a ministry environment. His experiences can be found in his new book, Strong Tower. A member of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., Chinn was part of the team that began to develop a security plan for the church in 2005.
At the time, the entire security team was made up of volunteers (New Life has since created a staff position for a Director of Life Safety). It was decided that a small group of the team would be armed as part of their safety responsibilities, though that fact was never advertised or made public.
“We knew that if a violent offender ever came into the church, we wanted to be able to respond appropriately,” explains Chinn.
He points out law enforcement agencies are no different than other places of business; they have to be careful with overtime and watch their workload, ensuring that they have the most manpower for the heaviest times of need.
“That means law enforcement is heavier on Friday and Saturday nights than any other day of the week,” says Chinn, whose brother is a Kansas sheriff. And though the lowest crime rate is on Sunday mornings, it often means there is a lower number of local law enforcement on call, with the average response time for a 911 emergency varying from state to state between eight minutes to as much as 20 minutes. A lot can happen in eight minutes, as Chinn would find out when a
shooter walked onto New Life’s campus in December of 2007 (see sidebar, “Three Minutes,” at the end of this article).
The issue of bringing weapons into the church is hard for many to talk about, and some churches contacted for this article declined to speak with Preaching on this topic. But 38 states and the District of Columbia currently allow or soon will allow concealed weapons in places of worship.
“You pray that the situation never would arise; but if it does, it’s important to be able to control the situation and take action should it be needed,” says McAuliffe from Willow Creek. “Having concealed weapons on the appropriate staff, who are well-trained, can sometimes mean the difference between a few or many getting hurt or seriously wounded.”
Pastor Brady Boyd of New Life Church agrees. “Personally, when pastors tell me they don’t have a plan for security, I think it’s unwise. We certainly don’t want to be alarmists and make people fearful; but at the same time … I don’t think God has any problem at all with us protecting and defending ourselves.”
Chinn says that the reality for most churches is that someone in their congregation will have a weapon on them. “If you’ve got more than a hundred people, you probably have someone carrying,” he says. “We would much rather have a group of people who have trained together, who are using the right kind of equipment (bullets not prone to ricochet and create collateral damage) and who know what the plan is and have talked about all the variables that can happen with a shooting in a crowded environment.
“If you have a team that has planned together that way, your chance of having a relatively successful outcome is much higher than if you just say, ‘I know there are people in the audience who are carrying, so we don’t need a security plan,’” continues Chinn. “That’s not a good way to approach anything, especially the safety of a congregation.”
Over the past 10 years Chinn has tracked and studied news and police reports and has evaluated 184 different deadly force incidents occurring within a ministry environment. “There are 336,000 or so churches in the United States that are not mega-church size,” says Chinn. “The vast majority of the deadly force incidents I have tracked come from those smaller churches.”
Communicate with Your Congregation
Pastors and church leaders should not feel pressure to implement or modify a security program overnight. It’s important to take the correct amount of time for evaluating, training and implementing. It’s also vital that good communication takes place between church leadership and the church congregation.
Steven Strauch stresses that churches must remain a place of welcome. “Ministry must never cease out of fear,” he says. “Churches may need to evaluate an approach to a ministry, an alternative to an event, but never stop in fear of risk. If that happens, then sin wins and the Spirit is hindered.”
Jeff Hawkins recommends that a church be open with its congregation that measures are being taken to handle security, safety and other emergencies. “People are not ignorant that these incidents occur in the church, sometimes with tragic consequences,” says Hawkins. “Security by definition means to be free from fear and anxiety-knowing the church is not only protecting them spiritually but physically should bring peace.”
In an emergency, people will look to you and others on staff for direction. And while your church does not want to make all security plans public knowledge, you should make it clear to the congregation that thought has been given to potential security incidents.
As we work and serve in ministry in a time of increasing uncertainty, the members of your congregation need to know that their safety, as well as their salvation, is a priority.
Resources for Your Church
Books: Security & Emergency Planning Handbook by Jeffrey Hawkins, only available on christiansecuritynetwork.org; Strong Tower by Carl Chinn, to be released; Keeping Your Church Safe by Ron Aguiar
Organizations: National Organization of Church Security & Safety Management (nocssm.org)
Church Insurance Service: Guide One Insurance (guideone.com)
?THREE MINUTES: How New Life’s Security Team Responded to a Shooter on Campus
On Dec. 9, 2007, an hour after the last morning service of the day had ended, a gunman opened fire in the parking lot of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Before his attack was over, he would kill two teenage sisters and wound three others, including the sisters’ father.
The story made national headlines in the weeks and months that followed, mostly focusing on the heroic efforts of one church security volunteer, Jeanne Assam, who drew her weapon and shot at the intruder before he turned his own gun on himself.
But there were other security team members in the building that day whose actions also made a difference, saving lives and showing bravery that went unnoticed at the time. These men were Carl Chinn, Dave Hagen and Buck Snodgrass. This past April, Chinn spoke with writer Sara Horn about the events of that day. Dave Hagen and Buck Snodgrass also agreed for their names to be used. This is the first time the story these men share has been told.
It had been a good Sunday at New Life that December day. Though services ended about 12:20 p.m., people were still lingering. Groups of two and three were spread out through the large 8,500-seat sanctuary, while others chatted in the halls of the church. Some were waiting to attend a special meeting with Jack Hayford, who had served as the guest speaker that morning.
Extra-duty police officers and the security team were all on high alert due to the shooting that had occurred just hours before at a Christian missionary training center in a nearby city. By 1 p.m., when it looked like the majority of people had left, the police officers also got in their cars and drove away. But 15 minutes later, a call came through their radios. A shooting was in progress at New Life Church.
Matthew Murray, a man later described in news reports as a loner with emotional problems, was shooting at church members walking to their cars. Dropping smoke bombs at the north and south entrances of the building, which were the primary entry points of the church, the gunman moved to the east entrance. This entrance led to the children’s and youth wing.
There were five church security team volunteers still on campus at that moment. Dave Hagen and Buck Snodgrass were the only two team members not carrying weapons that morning because neither had received authorization yet from the church to do so. But both of them heard the shots being fired outside and-despite being unarmed-began running up the long hallway of the children’s wing to see if they could locate the source. As they got closer to the five large, glass doors of the entrance, they saw the shooter approaching from outside. Hagen and Snodgrass watched as Murray’s rifle recoiled and glass shattered. He was coming inside.
“Get out of here, get out of here!” the men yelled, as they turned and ran back down the hundred-yard-long hallway, urging kids and adults to run. Some were standing still, frozen in fear at the sounds of gunshots; and others were oblivious, not realizing what was happening. One young boy was in the hallway playing a video game. “Just a minute, I’m finishing my game,” he said, casually.
“His grateful mother later told me that her son had never heard such authority come out of someone’s mouth as he then heard from those men!” Carl Chinn recalls. “Clearly, he finally understood it was time to get out of that hallway!” It was a good thing; the shooter had blown out the glass doors and bullets were now ricocheting off interior walls.
Chinn was standing guard just outside of New Life Pastor Brady Boyd’s office, while the pastor and Hayford were meeting at the time the shooting started. The first shots he heard were the ones coming into the building as the shooter stood outside the doors, shooting in, and his fellow security team members were clearing the children’s hallway.
As Chinn ran toward the sound of gunfire and the hallway came into view, the shots were so loud it was hard to place where they were coming from. With his weapon drawn, he entered the now-empty hallway and saw Buck Snodgrass.
Snodgrass, a Vietnam vet, was positioned in the middle of the hallway, making himself a target as he’d yelled at people to get back and to go the other way. “Your shooter is coming through the doors to your left,” he told Chinn.
As Snodgrass made his way down the hallway to go retrieve his own weapon from his car, Chinn quickly moved up the hall toward the gunman who was coming through the east doors into the hallway.
“The first thing the gunman saw was me in the hallway with my weapon drawn,” Chinn said. “I’m sure he wasn’t expecting that.”
Murray was dressed in all black; and Chinn could tell he was wearing some type of ballistic or tactical vest, though it was hard to tell which from the 100 yards or so that separated the two men.
Having been around guns his entire life, Chinn knew the range capabilities of the assault rifle the shooter was holding as well as the small pistol he was himself carrying. He selected a particular column as the point where the shooter would be 10 yards away and got ready.
At that point, Chinn believed he was the only armed defender left in the building. He thought Jeanne Assam had gone home. “Jeanne had been on our team about a month, not with us very long at all. I thought there were only three of us there, and it turned out there were five of us. There was another guy in a different building; and when he heard the announcements on the radio, he came running. But it was over by the time he got there.”
But for now, Chinn was alone. He says he felt like electricity gripped his chest. It was the same sensation he had experienced when he’d faced that gun in the lobby of Focus on the Family. “The first thing that had hit me that day at Focus was an overwhelming feeling of stupidity because I had not thought about seeing a gun,” says Chinn. “I just hadn’t considered that. I had considered lots of situations, and we had done the planning; but somehow in my mind, I’d never accepted the fact I was going to be faced with a gun in that lobby. That day, I had made up my mind I would never let myself or others feel that way again.”
Thinking that he and his pistol were the only things that stood between the shooter and the sanctuary where several people remained, including Chinn’s wife and daughter, Chinn got into position to confront him, still several yards away.
The radio sputtered. Someone thought there was a second shooter somewhere on the grounds.
Later, investigators were able to put together that a witness had been positive that two people were in a vehicle throwing out the smoke bombs; but after extensive interviews and following multiple leads, the police determined that there was never a second shooter.
At the time, though, Chinn didn’t know that. When asked what he thought when he heard a second shooter might be on the premises, Chinn is honest. “I cursed. But I didn’t take my eyes off the column in front of me. I just told myself that I couldn’t do anything about the second shooter, but I knew where the first one was.”
Suddenly, a man Chinn had never seen before was standing next to him, yelling that he was going to go after the shooter.
Chinn shook his head. “Sir, you need to get behind me and get out of this building,” Chinn told him. But the man wouldn’t listen. “The only way I knew he wasn’t the second shooter was that he asked for my gun to go after the shooter.”
Chinn has had a lot of time to think about that moment. This man was featured in many of the news stories that later covered that day and made it a point to talk about the heroics of one security team member, Assam, and what he perceived as the cowardice of another team member, Chinn. “Just because someone can carry the weapon doesn’t mean they have thought through everything that goes into a shooting scenario,” says Chinn, who wants to set the record straight but has requested Preaching not use this individual’s name. “This man was a prime example. He was a Vietnam veteran, and he should have known better. You don’t go charging after an assault rifle with a two-inch-long .32 auto.”
But Chinn didn’t have time to explain this to the man. Chinn recalls what happened: “He said, ‘Fine, I’ll go after him without a gun.’ The guy stepped out in front of me, shots rang out, his arm was hit and he jumped back behind me and said, ‘The S.O.B. just shot me!’”
Wondering what the man had expected might happen, Chinn realized his cover was blown and tried to tune the overzealous man out. He noticed a young boy hiding behind a counter. “He was on the ground down there, looking at me with eyes that said, ‘Tell me anything, and I’ll do it.’” Chinn stepped out and motioned for him to come to him. He pointed down the hallway in the direction he should run and told him to leave.
“As he was leaving, that’s when I saw Jeanne step out from the hallway on the other side,” recalls Chinn. “The homicide investigators later wanted to know what she said. All I know is that what she said was extremely authoritative, it was loud and she had her weapon aimed at the shooter. She was only 29 yards away from him.”
At that second, Chinn says he knew he was going to either see his fellow team member kill or be killed. After shooting several times in rapid fire, Assam started walking toward the shooter. “I didn’t have any idea whether she completely missed him or if he was running,” says Chinn.
Chinn ran up next to her, and both of them reached the shooter at the same time. Murray was dead (the autopsy reported he had taken his own life with a single gunshot wound to his head). Chinn says that the total time of the attack, from the shooter getting out of his car until he was on the ground, lasted no more than three minutes.
Chinn believes the church’s security plan did work that day. He quotes Proverbs 21:31. “There is a Scripture we think of in Proverbs: ‘The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.’ Yes, our training together was effective; and, yes, we were strategically placed. But victory belongs to the Lord.
When [the shooter] moved in, because Dave and Buck had already cleared that hallway, he didn’t have a killing field.
“I can’t tell you, though, how bad it hurt the whole security team that we lost two girls,” Chinn says, his voice suddenly tight. “That’s what we were there for, but we weren’t there when he first pulled the trigger.”
In addition to that feeling of regret over the loss of life, Chinn also recalls the anger he felt as he stood over the shooter. “I had so much anger, so quick. But I would much prefer to have followed the model that was given me by Dave Hagen.”
Hagen had just reached his car and was reaching for his weapon when he heard the words “shooter down” coming from his radio.
“He was reaching for his weapon; but as soon as he heard those words, he reached instead for his medical bag,” Chinn says. “That, to me, is a model of what a church security person should be. It was an instant decision. ‘He’s down. I want to see if I can care for him.’”
Out of the four security team members in the building that day, two had weapons and two did not; yet Chinn emphasizes that all had an important part to play.
“They [Dave and Buck] were focused on safety, while we were focused on security,” he says. “It took both to save lives. I’m just sorry we weren’t able to save all lives that day.”
To contact Carl Chinn and learn more about his new book, Strong Tower, or invite him to speak to your church’s security team, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.