A shooting at a Texas church in which two armed congregants fatally shot a gunman who had killed two people during church services Sunday highlighted a juxtaposition religious leaders have been struggling with in recent years. Churches are sanctuaries, places where a message of peace and understanding guide the mission. However, in a modern world, more churches are weighing the heavy burden of “protecting its flocks,” in the words of security leaders at Scottsbluff and Gering churches.
“If you would have asked me even 10 years ago if we would have armed security in our church, I would have told you no,” Chris Smith, a deacon at First Baptist Church, said. However, as he notes he has told at least one person: “Unfortunately, it’s not the 1950s anymore.”
At First Baptist Church, efforts to form a security team began three years ago after some of its members attended a training on active shooter events, Smith said.
The church is located on a major thoroughfare, Avenue I, in Scottsbluff. It’s location near Walmart and a local park mean that oftentimes, different people have shown up at the church. On one occasion, the church secretary found a homeless man sleeping in a back room. The man startled the woman and its unknown how long the man had been in the church. The discovery of the man pointed out a problem common in many churches: it is hard to keep an eye on all the nooks and crannies without a lot of foot traffic.
The church has also fallen victim to some thefts and burglaries. One brazen theft occurred as the pastor sat in his office.
“Anyone could walk in off the street and who knows what could happen,” Smith said.
No one incident led to concern among church leadership, but many at the church and throughout the country were catalysts for church leaders to put into place enhanced security.
At Northfield Church, a Nov. 5, 2017, church shooting in Sutherland, Texas, caught the attention of church leaders at the Gering church, prompting formation of a security team. Twenty-six people were killed in the shooting and 20 more were wounded.
Bart Bartels leads the security team at Northfield Church since it started two years ago. The retired Air Force veteran had been asked by the church’s pastor to lead the team, which he has called “The Gatekeepers.” Those efforts also began with the pastor and Bartels having attended a training for the public on active shooter events.
Not only are strangers with ill-intent a concern in a modern society, Bartels said, but people from the community, or even the parishioners, themselves, could be a danger to others.
“We look at it as more as we hope we never have an active shooter. ... We pray it is something that will never happen, but we are prepared in any case," he said. "In today’s environment, you just don’t know.”
For Bartels, a team that is made up of both armed and unarmed parishioners, is simply about readying for a worst case scenario.
“If you don’t think it can happen here, just look at Rushville,” he said, referring to an April 14 shooting at a Catholic church in the northwest Nebraska community. A man, who had been a suspect in an assault, entered the church. Some reports indicate the man had a knife. A Sheridan County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed the man.
Smith and Bartels call the security teams “ministries,” deeming them similar to the other ministry efforts done by the church members who volunteer for the choir, to teach children or other functions connected to the church.
“We have a small number of people who are very focused on that (security),” Smith said. “We have people who are singing, people who are leading worship service, we want people who are just focused on that. We don’t want them to have to focus on security stuff, too.”
Both men cite scripture when talking about the mission to defend parishioners. Bartels paraphrases 1 Peter, verse 5:8, which reads (ESV): “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Smith cites scripture that refers to protecting the flock of the church.
When building the team at Northfield, which is currently at 12 members, Bartels said he didn’t want “trigger happy, gun-toting fanatics. We wanted people who were still personable, but wanting to defend other people, if need be.”
The security team members at both churches are among the congregants, attending regular services, special services such as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services that draw larger crowds, and at events and activities throughout the week. They are there to praise and worship, but also keep a watchful eye.
“In anything you do, you have to recruit people,” Bartels said. “It was a matter of trying to recruit people who felt it in their heart that this is something that they wanted to do.”
At First Baptist Church, the security team is inconspicuous, with Smith explaining that security team members don’t wear similar clothing or other identification labeling them as “security.”
He said, “Everyone in the church knows, because those will be the people walking the halls or monitoring the doors, but an outsider who is in the church is not going to know.”
He explained that the church had been advised not to clearly identify security personnel.
“We don’t want them to be targets by someone who comes in off the street.”
At Northfield, the security volunteers also blend in, though someone might notice earpieces in their ears connected to the radios they carry and they are also identified with a small badge. That badge helps to differentiate security personnel for the congregation, and in the case of an event, law enforcement or first responders, Bartels said.
“It serves as a deterrent,” he said, explaining his theory that if people know that the church has armed security, it may prevent some incidents.
Both teams include veterans who have served and current or former law enforcement officers. Bartel said he wants team members who are proficient with firearms, and the training that is required for a concealed carry license or for law enforcement, helps ensure that proficiency.
Not just anyone can legally carry a firearm into a church. It’s a violation of Nebraska statute to carry a weapon into a church and concealed carry permit holders are advised of that law, as well as other prohibited places, during certification courses. In order to carry concealed in a church, a person must be a documented member of a security team.
Bartels said that the church has had two incidents where unauthorized persons carried concealed weapons in the church. Those situations, and most situations, are able to be handled quietly, with little notice from the parishioners. Both incidents included persons who were traveling, who carry concealed in their home states, and weren’t aware of Nebraska laws.
Bartels said the only incident that he can think of that security handled that parishioners noticed involved a man rushing the pastor on the stage. Like all events, it was a learning event for the security team.
In the initial stages, some congregants weren’t comfortable with armed volunteers.
“We had some comments, like ‘Oh, now we have a bunch of ‘Wyatt Earps’ in service,’” Smith said. “...But, now, that seems to have died down and people are accepting.”
Both churches worked with law enforcement agencies in the area in establishing their security teams. Team members do regular training, which is not only good for proficiency, but also to establish camaraderie.
Also, not all volunteers on either one of the church teams are carrying concealed weapons. Bartel said that team members are trained on a variety of response, from helping to evacuate the congregation to treating people who have been harmed. At both churches, security team members have been trained in First Aid/CPR and even Stop the Bleed, a national awareness campaign to encourage training to help in a “bleeding emergency.”
First Baptist Church also hired a security professional in the community to help develop its plan.
“It’s a simple plan,” Smith said. “Some plans are complicated, but we have a plan that we were able to easily implement.”
Both men noted that armed security is only a small piece of the discussion on security and safety in churches. As plans progress, other improvements in security and safety have been made, from planned locking of doors to patrolling parking lots.
The two churches have also begun to put together medical teams and protocols for handling other emergencies, such as storm or tornadoes.
“It is more than just carrying a gun,” Bartels said. “We want to cover the entire gamut of safety and security.”
First Baptist is in the process of putting together a medical team, seeking to acquire a defibrillator device that can be used in the case of a congregant suffering a heart attack. The church officials have enlisted the help of nurses and other medical professionals who are members of the congregation. Northfield Church has also enlisted nurses and others to head up efforts there to form a medical team, with the focus of providing treatment or other aid before first responders were able to arrive.
First Baptist Church has put into place an alarmed security system, which alerts people on a calling tree at the church, and notifies law enforcement.
Other upgrades at the churches have included improvements to lighting, repairing doors and other upgrades to ensure that classrooms and other locations could be closed off in the case of an active shooter or other incident. Protocols and escape plans for fires or sheltering in place in the case of a tornado are also part of the ongoing safety planning.
At First Baptist Church, the church is also doing background checks on anyone who works with children, Smith said.
“We didn’t want to go overboard,” he said of the incremental steps to enhance security and safety at the church. “On some of the things, after you start doing it (like the background checks), it seems obvious. You wonder why we haven’t been doing it all along.”