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Shootings Prompt Talks on Church Security

BY G. JEFFREY MacDONALD                                                                                    ©2009 Religion News Service
 
ne day after the March 8 church shooting that left an Illinois pastor dead, church security consultant Marc Brooks fielded calls from eight congregations eager to get firearms into the hands of worship staff or volunteers.
 
Those churches will first need to pass Brooks' state-certified test to carry a concealed weapon. But keeping a congregation safe from violent outbursts doesn't always have to involve guns in the sanctuary, he said.
 
"If you need firearms training, then we do that," says Brooks, a deputy sheriff and chief instructor for Protective Services Training & Consultants in Thornton, Colo. But sometimes church security "doesn't require a firearm. It just requires that you're alert and that you're in shape and that you're able to protect your pastor."
 
Church security issues have become a fresh cause of concern in the wake of several deadly incidents, including Sunday's at First Baptist Church of Maryville, Illinois, in recent months:
   
Illinois Pastor Killed in Pulpit Gunmen Kill Guatemalan Pastor Related articles-- A man stunned a group of tourists in February when he fatally shot himself at the foot of a cross at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.
  
 -- In November, a gunman allegedly killed his estranged wife, and a worshipper who rushed to her aid, at a church in Clifton, N.J.
  
 -- Last July, a man with an apparent grudge against liberals opened fire inside a Knoxville, Tennessee, Unitarian Universalist congregation, killing two and wounding six.
 
These events, plus others from recent years, have churches large and small wondering what, if anything, they can and should do to ensure safe environments. It can be a tough question to answer, not just because of limited resources but also because most congregations strive to be welcoming, especially to strangers.
 
"There can be a tension between being an open, inviting church and being a secure one," says Eric Spacek, senior risk manager for GuideOne Insurance, which insures about 40,000 congregations. "It's a challenge that most churches are struggling with."
 
Recent data on church violence is scarce because agencies generally don't track violent crime by venue, but crime experts estimate that it remains extremely rare, even as it generates big headlines.
 
Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Jacqueline Cohen suspects church violence might even be less prevalent today than in generations past, in part because criminals have more alternatives if they're seeking an audience or a reliable place to locate their victims.
 
Church violence appears to be increasing, Cohen says, because a shooting in church "distinguishes it from other murders, and it makes people afraid to be in a place where they otherwise feel safe, and those are the dynamics that (lead to widespread coverage) in the media."
 
Even so, churches are concerned by incidents that capture attention, and a cottage industry has cropped up in recent years to advise them on security issues.
 
Experts recommend churches begin their security efforts by learning to spot their vulnerabilities. That means conferring with a security consultant or local law enforcement, according to Rick Anderson, founder of Church Security Solutions in Salem, Ore.
 
From there, Anderson suggests assembling a team to look for "pre-incident indicators," such as a stranger who appears nervous, avoids eye contact and cuts casual conversation short. Attention to the unordinary, coupled with strategic placement of team members around the sanctuary, can help reduce the risk of an incident by making it harder to pull off.
 
But such lessons aren't always easy to learn when churchgoers strive to be accommodating in a house of worship. "If somebody looks at us crossways or we get an uneasy feeling, we tend to forgive them and go on about our business," Anderson says. "We actually suppress our gut check, (but) we shouldn't dismiss cues that in our gut tell us something is not right."

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