Our hearts grieve the innocent loss of life as 26 worshippers were gunned down at the First Baptist Church in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5, 2017. Headlines of major newspapers read: “Evil has invaded the Sanctuary” and “Can any church be open and welcome to All?”. Reasonable concerns when you look at a death toll of 48 lives from active shooter situations at houses of worship during the past five years:
Gaining Courage to Confront Evil
Houses of worship are places where a person finds safety and belonging. Society believes families will be safe as they attend services or participate in church events. Tragically, the evil of this world finds no boundaries to prevent tragedy and harm. Pastors, church elders, deacons, greeters and Sabbath school leaders must be trained and prepared to confront unthinkable situations and act responsibly when evil strikes.
Active Shooter Response Planning
Situational Awareness is the critical first step in a congregation’s Emergency Planning – “You can’t pat someone down and give them a hug at the same time,” said Lt. Todd Caron of the Anderson County Sherriff’s Office in South Carolina. Caron believes, congregations and church members must be aware of their surroundings. “We can still be open and loving and be cautious and prepared… you should notice if someone is disgruntled or upset, they may need some help or you may just want to keep a watch on them.” 1
Many churches have an informal security or emergency plan. Some congregations use off-duty police officers, retired military or hire security personnel to watch for signs of danger as they observe those who enter for services. Extra care must be taken if armed security is going to be used on church property. Pastors should always seek counsel from Conference officials before any security contract is signed. Consideration must be given to applicable state laws concerning weapons on church property, local Conference policy and liability insurance to protect both the security officer, local church and Conference. (See Resource #6 – Firearms on Church Property for more information) Being welcoming and open doesn’t begin with songs, sermons or bible studies. It begins with awareness at the door.
Even talking about an Active Shooter scenario is a difficult conversation that church leaders want to avoid or believe it will never happen here. Most active shooter situations last less than five minutes and are over before law enforcement arrives on scene. Church leaders cannot be complacent; they must face the issue that the unthinkable may happen and be ready to respond.
This can be achieved through five action steps: 1) Discussing “what would we do” with the church board, 2) Establish an emergency response plan for your church facility, 3) Review your emergency plan with local law enforcement agencies, 4) Conduct practice emergency drills with church leaders and 5) Be aware of what is taking place during all church activities and report all threats or suspicious behavior to law enforcement officials. Building strong relationships with local law enforcement is key so they know your facility before an emergency 911 call is placed in the event of an emergency. Remember, situational awareness begins at the front door. Knowing how to respond, knowing alternative ways to exit, taking immediate and appropriate actions can save lives.
Arthur F. Blinci is senior risk consultant and owner of Azure Hills Risk Management
Helpful Online Resources…
2. Detailed Emergency Planning Guide for Houses of Worship
4. Run, Hide, Fight – Training video:
Resources from Adventist Risk Management