Churches seek balance between security, vigilance and love

There were two church shootings on Sunday.

One, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, resulted in 26 people dead, ranging in age from 18 months to 77 years old.

The other shooting was in Fresno, California. Martha Garcia, 64, died when her estranged husband allegedly shot her and her boyfriend in a church parking lot. Her boyfriend later died at the hospital.

Galen Womack doesn’t want his church — or any other — to be next.

“Churches are just notoriously soft targets, and people are starting to realize,” Womack said. “This is honestly something God has put on my heart, and it has become a real passion with me, and I just keep getting more and more calls, and people are finally starting to ask for help.”

Womack, who leads security at First Church of the Nazarene in Wichita, is one of many rethinking security as shootings in sacred spaces increasingly grab headlines.

Rising numbers

There have been more than 1,500 “deadly force incidents” at faith-based organizations since 1999, according to Carl Chinn, a former building engineer for Focus on the Family who now tracks violence in churches.

Of those incidents, more than 450 resulted in someone’s death.

Chinn’s data, which he compiles through news reports, indicates that 2017 was already one of the worst years for violent deaths in American churches. The worst years prior were 2012, with 76 violent deaths, and 2015, with 77, Chinn said in a news release.

Including the 26 victims in Texas, the two in California and the shooter in Texas, who is believed to have killed himself, the number of deaths on faith-based properties in 2017 comes to 108, Chinn said.


The nation is noticing: TIME Magazine reported that even before the shooting in Texas, the Trump administration had begun efforts to train places of worship on handling active shooter situations.

Jamie Johnson, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office, told TIME that he has made security a priority.

“We are doing everything we can to provide information and practical assistance,” Johnson told TIME. “President Trump is aware of the Department of Homeland Security’s commitment to protecting America’s faith groups when they worship.”

Practical measures

There are basic measures that any church should take to be safe, said Womack, of Wichita’s First Church of the Nazarene.

His church is about to get a complete security system with door sensors, alarms, motion sensors and cameras, “the works” for the children’s wing. The church already has cameras in the sanctuary that are monitored in real time.

An important component of security is “behavioral pattern recognition,” Womack said. Greeters need to be aware of people who are acting strangely or wearing certain types of clothes.

Devin Patrick Kelley, the suspected shooter in Texas, was wearing all black and a tactical vest, according to news reports. Womack said this should have caused a call to 911 as soon as Kelley set foot in the parking lot.

Womack brings in Kansas-City based group, Strategos International, to do a training every year for multiple Wichita-area churches.

Barry Young, vice president of church security ministry at Strategos, said the company has trained more than 20,000 church personnel across the country.

The two main reasons for church violence are robberies and domestic violence, Young said. Other causes include internal disputes and hatred of a religion.

An easy way to stave off violence is to keep doors locked Monday through Saturday, with only one entrance where people have to knock or ring.

Another method is simple, Young said: Make sure everyone is greeted warmly.

At Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, a female usher noticed the barrel of a gun sticking out of a man’s coat as she greeted him on Easter Sunday 2016. She quickly contacted the armed church security team, Young said, who stopped the man until he could be arrested by the Memphis police.

“It was thwarted not by military, not by police, but by a female usher or greeter trained in awareness,” he said.

Debating firearms

Almost immediately after news broke about the shooting in Texas, some called for churchgoers and staff to be armed.

Mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress told Fox & Friends that up to half of his members at First Baptist Dallas are armed, bringing the weapons into the church.

“If somebody tries that in our church, they may get one shot off or two shots off, but that’s it, and that’s the last thing they’ll ever do in this life,” he said.

Womack, however, says churches need to be careful with who they arm. When he first got his concealed carry permit, he thought he was ready to “save the world,” he said.

“I was probably the most dangerous person in the room,” he added.

Some churches don’t allow weapons. Others allow concealed carry only with specific permission.

Young said Strategos advises people to only carry in church if they have advanced firearm training.

“The reason we do that is this, when seconds count, the police are minutes away,” Young said. “I want to make sure you hear our heart. We’re not saying throw guns out as the answer. Guns are the last resort. But if we’re not prepared to take them out, they’ll take us out.”

A delicate balance

Sometimes balancing church security while maintaining a welcoming atmosphere can be a struggle.

The Rev. Stan Van Den Berg, pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, said in an email that security cannot be paramount in churchgoer’s hearts.

“The nature of the church is to reflect the heart of Christ, which is to be a welcoming place to all who come,” Van Den Berg said. “Yet the evils of the world require us to be vigilant for the safety of those who walk in our doors.”

Every church should have a few people who serve as watchdogs and are trained to use weapons in self-defense, he said. That frees others to “love people with open arms.”

For Womack, helping churches build up their security is a part of his faith.

“We have to wake up,” Womack said. “The people that haven’t, I don’t know what else it would take to get their attention. It’s not just common sense anymore. For us, being a Bible-believing church, it truly is about being obedient to God’s word. That takes on a whole new level of responsibility. It is about saving people’s lives.”

Strategos International is offering a two-day church training in Wichita at First Church of the Nazarene on March 2 and 3. More information is available at

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess

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