Faith Communities Making Safety, Security a Top Priority

Aug. 1, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Strategos International trainer David Thomas speaks to church leaders from across Nebraska at Zion Church on July 27, 2019. (Becca Costello, NET News)

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With mass shootings and other violence in the news recently, churches and other faith communities are focused on security more than ever.

The peace and refuge of houses of worship are sometimes disturbed by violence – some have even been targeted by mass shooters.

Twenty people were killed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017; 11 were killed at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh late last year; and 49 people were killed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this year. These and other events put churches on high alert.

Faith leaders want to welcome visitors with open arms, but also want to keep their congregations safe. That can sometimes be a tough balance.


A worship service at Zion Church in Lincoln on July 28, 2019. (Becca Costello, NET News)

It’s an issue Zion Church in south Lincoln has been working on for almost a decade. Pastor Stu Kerns says they’ll never stop evaluating their safety plans.

"Churches and schools are very soft targets," Kerns says. "And because we're, again, designed to embrace and welcome people, especially churches, don't have a lot of filters or anything like that."

Zion hosted a training last weekend, giving leaders from more than two dozen churches the chance to learn about active intruders and how to respond.

David Thomas, a trainer with Strategos International, led about 40 men around the church building, pausing to demonstrate how a door can be secured even if it doesn’t have a lock.

He asked a couple of volunteers to leverage their weight against specific points on the door.


Thomas shows church leaders how to put enough pressure on a door to keep an intruder from forcing it open. (Becca Costello, NET News)

"So what can we do if he starts shooting through the door and we’re holding here?" Thomas asked. One participant shouted out a suggestion: "Pray."

"I'd be praying long before this, let me tell you," Thomas said, laughing with the group.

Strategos has been working with Christian churches since 2002. Thomas says interest has increased over the past few years as more church leaders realize the risks.

"A church is no different than a school with a large common area," Thomas says. "A church is no different than a school room that has a captive audience."

For Scott Weldon, his church is no different than his family. Weldon heads up a unique church department: the security ministry.

"The reality is everyone, whether they know it or not, they are their own first responder," Weldon says. "I take responsibility for the safety in my home, and so I just felt that the church needed to be taking responsibility for the safety of the people in this church."

Some measures are simple and free, like keeping outside doors locked and having greeters at each door.

Zion’s security team is made up of volunteer law enforcement officers or military members who already attend the church. And at every service, at least some members of that security team carry concealed weapons.

Weldon says they’re very careful about choosing who’s allowed to carry a gun on church property. Primarily, he looks for someone with good people skills.

"Really, you're looking for people who have high EQ, high emotional intelligence, first and foremost," Weldon says. "They do though, they do have to have a servant's heart and warrior’s mindset. So they have to be able to function in a violent environment, not that they would ever want to, they just have to be able to."

The weapons at Zion Church are never out in the open. Pastor Kerns says most in the congregation don’t even think about it anymore.

And Zion Church isn’t alone; New Life Community Church and Third City Christian Church in Grand Island both have armed security.


Thomas shows "danger zones" in a church sanctuary, where a person who wants to do harm has the easiest access. (Becca Costello, NET News)

Other church leaders told me they want armed guards but they can’t afford it – small churches have fewer qualified members and hiring private security is expensive.

But Pastor Kerns says many churches would never choose to bring weapons into the building.

"There are many churches who are wrestling with this question. And a lot of churches are coming down on the other side and saying, you know, what, I'm not sure we want to, we want to do that, that would just send the wrong message."

It seems most faith communities have at least thought about security.

A recent survey from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism found nearly 70% of Jewish communities have a current threat-response plan in place. And nearly 80% have recently paid to increase security.

Seth Harris is President of Tifareth Israel Synagogue in Lincoln. He says they first instituted the security plan in 2014, after a shooting at the Overland Park Jewish Community Center in Kansas.

"It’s on the forefront of people’s minds," Harris says. "I’ve seen all sorts of different security protocols, some of them are very lax and some of them aren’t, but I would say every synagogue just about has something that they’re doing.”

Despite high-profile acts of violence, it’s not very likely that any of these communities will be targeted.

But leaders say these plans are just good practice anyway.

"It’s not a security plan only in the event of a shooting," Harris says. "It covers if there’s lighting or storms or bomb threats or kidnappings or whatever."

Pastor Kerns says some things for Zion Church are non-negotiable, like being a welcome place for anyone to visit.

"To the degree that safety and security can help people feel that the church is a safe place, it's a good thing," Kerns says. "To the degree that it reflects fear in our culture, then that's we want to guard against that, because that's counterproductive. We still live in a very safe culture."