Special Reports

George Tiller shooting spurs churches to review security plans

"You can live in faith or you can live in fear," local pastor Gene Williams said Wednesday, three days after George Tiller was fatally shot in a Wichita church.

Williams, pastor emeritus at First Church of the Nazarene, said that for him, living in faith means keeping access to churches as open as possible.

For other clergy, it means protecting their congregations with uniformed officers and security cameras.

In the aftermath of Sunday's shooting at Reformation Lutheran Church, some churches are re-evaluating their security plans and exploring new ways to keep their members safe.

Churches are often reluctant to implement security measures because they misunderstand what security means, said Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, a national organization that advises churches on security matters.

"They think it's all about guards, metal detectors and security cameras," he said.

But making a church safer can be as simple as teaching staff to be more aware of suspicious activity.

All churches should have a security plan, Hawkins said, but a poll by his organization found that 75 percent of churches in the United States don't.

Sunday's shooting "heightens the need" for such a plan, said JC Kelley, senior pastor at East Heights United Methodist Church, on East Douglas.

The church doesn't have a security plan, Kelley said, but staff members met Tuesday to brainstorm ideas to make the church safer.

What local churches do

Some churches, such as First Presbyterian Church, on North Broadway, had security plans in place before Sunday's shooting.

"Security is an issue for all churches," the Rev. Cathy Northrup said. "The difficulty is we want to be a secure, safe place, but we don't want to be a lockdown."

With its downtown location, the church has been vandalized, Northrup said.

In the three years she has been at the church, she has overseen a number of security changes, but she said the church has no plans to heighten security because of Sunday's shooting.

The church locks its doors except during church functions. It also built a fence around the sanctuary and installed video cameras and a buzzer system.

After a gunman killed two people and injured seven more in a Tennessee church in July, First Presbyterian invited Phil Smith, president of Smith Security Consulting in Wichita, to train church staff.

Smith, a former Secret Service agent, has spent nearly five years hosting safety seminars for churches.

"I brief them as to what they need to look out for, what the dangers are, and how they need to look out for them," Smith said.

Since Sunday's shooting, Smith said he has received two calls from local churches wanting to increase security measures.

Some of the larger churches in the area, such as Central Community Church and Central Christian Church, already have off-duty police officers on-site during Sunday and Wednesday services.

"Churches are places of worship, and in order to be able to worship and to feel and create a worshipful experience, security must be part of this day and age," said David Welsh, senior pastor at Central Christian Church, at 29th and Rock Road.

Central Community Church, on West Maple, also uses security cameras and has ushers and maintenance staff trained in security measures.

Executive pastor Greg Smith said the church was improving communication and safety training even before Sunday's shooting.

Other local churches don't feel the need to have a large security presence.

Security at Vineyard Church, on East Blake Street, consists of a team of ushers and greeters who stand at the door during services and patrol the parking lot. The church feels secure because it is not involved in controversial issues and has a small congregation, said Angela Casselman, a ministry assistant.

"We have the advantage (that) everyone knows everybody so we recognize strangers pretty quickly," Casselman said.

Williams, the pastor emeritus at First Church of the Nazarene, said his church doesn't have a set security plan and Sunday's shooting won't change that.

The church, located on East Kellogg, has ushers who are trained to watch for suspicious behavior, but Williams said he considered Tiller's shooting an isolated incident.

"The meeting room is called 'sanctuary'; it's a place of safety," he said. "People should be able to come to church and feel perfectly safe."

Training staff

Implementing a security plan doesn't have to be costly, said Hawkins, the national church-security consultant.

Larger churches and churches with high-profile members like Tiller may need security guards on staff, but it isn't the only way for a church to be safe.

Training staff, volunteers and congregation members to be on the lookout for suspicious activity can also help.

"Every staff and every volunteer, no matter what their job is, the second part of that job is security," Hawkins said. "They need to be aware of what's going on, who's walking in and who looks out of place."

Phil Smith, the local security consultant, said there are certain behaviors that church staff should watch for, such as people wearing long coats in warm weather or carrying large bags or backpacks.

Yet one church leader said security can only provide so much protection.

"No matter how much we plan, no matter how hard we try, we can't cover all the bases," Central Community's Greg Smith said. "We have to leave some of it up to God."

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